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Moving Metals: Part III ▸ Washington is gambling that the Lobito corridor linking Congo, Zambia and Angola will provide the battery metals to power its green transition.

Ahead of a trip to Zambia in September, Kurt House made a detour to Washington to meet US Under-Secretary of State Jose Fernandez, who subsequently wrote on X. “We need more U.S. companies investing in #Africa like KoBold.”

House, chief executive officer of the company, then made a stopover in Lubumbashi, the biggest city in the copper belt of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he saw first hand the competition his company faces. “The plane was full of Chinese nationals,” he says, perhaps unsurprising given that operators from China control most of the cobalt and copper production in Congo. “They all exited in Lubumbashi. They’re way, way ahead in Congo. That’s very obvious.”

KoBold Metals, a Silicon Valley start-up using artificial intelligence to accelerate its hunt for copper, hopes to become the first US company to build a mine in Zambia in decades. The company believes it’s sitting on a giant, high-grade deposit, but there is no independent assessment of the scale of it. KoBold — whose backers include Sam Altman’s Apollo Projects and Bill Gates — bought a majority shareholding in the development for $150 million in December 2022, announcing the deal at the US-Africa Leader’s Summit. Production could begin as early as 2030, said House.

Moving EV Metals Across Africa

Revived rail line expected to cut delivery times


Note: The planned connection between Luacano in Angola and Chingola in Zambia is subject to a feasibility study Sources: Ivanhoe Mines; US White House

This optimism is predicated on a multibillion dollar Washington-backed project to revive a 122-year-old railway line that could act as the main transport artery to move these metals out of the country. At the moment a copper-laden lorry can take more than a month to reach traditional ports. And the route is perilous. Corrupt officials and hijackers look to profit off the valuable cargos. Some traders have abandoned altogether the highway to Durban in South Africa — the main artery for the past two decades to transport metals from Zambia and Congo.

The $2.3 billion Lobito corridor rail project is as ambitious as it is complex. It spans three countries — linking Congo and Zambia in Africa’s copper-flush heartland to Angola’s Atlantic coast via a network of 2,600 kilometers of railway line. Financed by a combination of the US government, the African Development Bank and commodities trader Trafigura, the project is the single biggest concrete move by Washington to counter China’s dominant position over the market for critical metals in Africa.

The 1,344-km Benguela Railway stretches from Angola’s port city of Lobito, eastward through destinations such as Luena, before reaching the city of Luau, bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The 1,344-km Benguela Railway stretches from Angola’s port city of Lobito, eastward through destinations such as Luena, before reaching the city of Luau, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

Wresting back some control is critical to President Joe Biden’s plan for the US economy’s transition to clean energy and efforts to boost adoption of electric vehicles.

Yet, the involvement of the Biden administration in the rail project is far from risk-free, according to a US congressional adviser briefed on the initiative. Questions over Angola’s human rights record were raised after João Lourenço’s narrow victory in the 2022 presidential election. Congo, too, is far from stable. And any change in leadership in one of the countries involved could undermine the sustainability of the project, adds the adviser.

Some have also questioned whether demand for the metals will justify the expense of the rail project, while others ask if incumbents in Congo’s mining industry — Chinese and Western firms — will use a line partly funded by one of their rivals, Trafigura.

The White House remains determined to press ahead. “There is no time to waste,” says Amos Hochstein, Biden’s senior adviser for energy and investment. “We have been absent from the scene for far too long.”

“An electric vehicle is essentially a battery, and what’s in the battery is Africa,” adds Hochstein, “and so there’s a great opportunity here for Africa to be part of a 21st century clean energy future.”

Copper loaded onto wagons at the New Kapiri Mposhi train station in Zambia.

Copper loaded onto wagons at the New Kapiri Mposhi train station in Zambia. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

A retired senior operations officer fills in as the locomotive driver of the TAZARA train at the New Kapiri Mposhi train station in Zambia.

A retired senior operations officer fills in as the locomotive driver of the Tazara train at the New Kapiri Mposhi train station in Zambia. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

Few doubt Africa’s pivotal role in the clean energy future. The bigger question, says Hannah Ryder, chief executive officer at Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined, is whether the US has learned from China’s mis-steps in its bid to secure a foothold in a part of the world where Beijing is dominant, thanks in part to President Xi Jinping’s trillion dollar spending on his Belt and Road Initiative. Bloomberg traced the path of influence the US is trying to carve out, from KoBold’s project near Chililabombwe in Zambia to the border of Congo and the Angolan port of Lobito.

Despite the recent slowdown in demand growth for EVs, the lure of the metals powering them from cobalt — a key ingredient in lithium batteries — to copper is set to grow dramatically over the next decade. Analysis by BloombergNEF says the world will need an additional $10 trillion worth of metals between now and 2050 to meet net-zero emissions targets. Congo already supplies more than two thirds of the world’s cobalt and has rapidly caught up with Peru as the second-biggest copper producer. Zambia to the south has an ambitious, some say unrealistic, target to more than quadruple copper output by 2031.

It means that much of the future supply of these metals will be excavated from the central African copper belt that straddles the two nations.

The complication — at least for the US and Europe — is that Chinese companies already control or have significant stakes in mines that produce the majority of Congo’s copper and cobalt.

First Quantum Minerals Ltd. mines more than half of Zambia’s total copper output, and although based in Canada, its second-biggest shareholder is Jiangxi Copper Corp Ltd., backed by Beijing. Fellow Canadian group, Ivanhoe Mines Ltd., is building Africa’s biggest copper complex in Congo together with China’s Zijin Mining Group Co.

Beijing’s influence extends far beyond the mines. Some of the critical roadways connecting the copper belt with southern Africa’s ports are operated by Chinese companies. Its dominance extends into the global processing of the metals with more than 40% of copper and more than two-thirds of cobalt refined in China, according to BloombergNEF.

Yet this US re-engagement has been welcomed, especially by some heavily indebted African countries.

The continent is sitting on an annual infrastructure funding shortfall running into the tens of billions of dollars. Since the start of the century Beijing has lent African governments $170 billion, according to Boston University research. Much of this has been spent on building transport infrastructure including airports, railways, roads and ports. A lot of these debts are now falling due, straining relations with Beijing and adding to domestic criticism that local economies and workers didn’t benefit as much as they should have from the China-backed projects.

A man cycles past a Chinese built commerce centre on September 19, 2023, in Kabwe, Zambia. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony
Chinese nationals at a shopping mall in Lusaka, Zambia.
A building emblazoned with a Great Wall of China in Kitwe, Zambia.

A Chinese-built commerce center in Kabwe, Zambia.

Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

A bronze statue at the Chinese-built Tazara memorial park in Lusaka, Zambia, to commemorate the sacrifice of Chinese workers who died during the construction of the rail line during the 1970s.

Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

A shopping mall in Lusaka, Zambia.

Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

A building emblazoned with a Great Wall of China in Kitwe, Zambia.

Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

Congo and Zambia — with the majority of their populations aged under 18 — want companies to not simply export the raw metals, but upgrade them into batteries and electric motors, or at least components to be assembled in their countries.

“We don’t want Africans migrating to Europe, risking their lives on the Mediterranean,” says Situmbeko Musokotwane, Zambia’s finance minister, who hopes that the development of nickel, cobalt and copper mines at home will help create jobs. “We want those livelihoods to be established in Africa.”

Having borrowed billions of dollars from China over the past decade, Zambia stopped its repayments in 2020, and is still trying to restructure them three years later. Washington has used its influence at the World Bank to apply pressure on China to agree to a Zambian debt relief program.

Beijing’s not sitting idle though. A Chinese state-owned rail operator is in talks with the Zambian and Tanzanian governments to take over the Tazara railway concession that connects the copper belt to the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam. That will entail more than $1 billion in investment, according to China’s ambassador to Zambia, Du Xiaohui.

The Lobito corridor project illustrates a stark change in tack for the US — which has spent billions on healthcare and counter-terrorism in Africa while China has been backing infrastructure projects.

The European Union has joined the US and other Group of 7 countries in supporting the project, and the parties in October appointed Nigeria-based Africa Finance Corp. as lead developer for the link from Zambia to Angola, leveraging its local expertise. A feasibility study should be completed this year. If the project gets the go ahead, construction will start in 2026 and take up to four years, says the lender’s CEO, Samaila Zubairu.

“There’s definitely an element of great-power conflict here,” KoBold’s House says. “The US has put access to critical metals for itself and its allies as a very high priority.”

Railway workers repair the line between Luena and Luau which cuts through Moxico province, Angola.

Railway workers repair the line between Luena and Luau which cuts through Moxico province, Angola. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

The Angolan border town of Luau sits at a critical intersection of the Benguela railway and Lobito corridor. More than 1,300 kilometers to the west is the port of Lobito which is barely used today for exports of metals, 400 kilometers to the east in Congo is the town of Kolwezi — a key mining hub for both copper and cobalt. AGL, the company that won the concession to operate the port’s container terminal — a unit of the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Co. — estimates that within a decade Lobito will account for around 20% of the expanded metals production going into and out of the Zambia and Congo copper belt.

Olivier De Noray, AGL ports and terminals director, says his company has ambitions to more than triple the number of shipping containers the port handles annually to 100,000 by early 2026, and double that by 2029.

That seems optimistic when viewed from the track between Luau and Kolwezi. Operated by the Congo authorities, the line is in such poor state that even trains crawling at an average of 10 kilometers per hour frequently derail. Trafigura estimates that 80 kilometers of track in Congo needs to be replaced. As much as $100 million of the total spend has been earmarked to revive this part of the line.

The Lobito Atlantic Railway

Network of 2,600 kilometers linking Congo and Zambia to Angola’s coast


Note: The planned connection between Luacano in Angola and Chingola in Zambia is subject to a feasibility study.
Sources: White House and Bloomberg reporting

Going west from Luau to the port of Lobito the picture is very different. The characters 祝你旅途愉快! scroll across the LED noticeboard as the passenger train pulls out of the station, Mandarin for “I wish you a pleasant journey!” and a reminder that China Railway 20th Bureau Group Co Ltd., a state-owned company, rebuilt this line about a decade ago for an estimated $2 billion. It lost out in July, to the consortium led by Trafigura, in the bid to retain the license to operate the 1,344 kilometer stretch from Luau to Lobito which takes about two days to travel.

In the dining car there is an older reminder of the railway’s heritage. Printed on the wall are the words “Restaurante Robert Williams” a reference to the Scottish mining engineer who in 1902 won a 99-year lease from the then colonial power, Portugal, to build and operate the Benguela line from Lobito to Kolwezi.

By the time the contract ended, Angola had been engulfed by almost three decades of civil conflict which left hundreds of thousands dead, turned the country into a Cold War pawn and devastated the oil-rich nation’s infrastructure. Beijing stepped in to finance and rebuild the railway in 2004. In the process Angola has since taken on as much as $45 billion of debt from China — more than any other African nation — part of which is being repaid in oil deliveries.

The Trafigura consortium, also including Mota Engil, the Portugese construction company, and the Belgian train operator Vecturis, has pledged to spend $555 million on upgrading the line.

The town of Luacano, 80 kilometers to the west of Luau, is where the existing rail line will connect with the new one, linking the mines in Zambia, including the KoBold facility, to the Lobito corridor. At an estimated cost of $1.6 billion — the Zambia-Lobito line — would be the most expensive part of the project. The AfDB plans to contribute about $500 million to the new line.

After Luacano, the next stop is Luena, where a horn blasts loudly as the carriages crawl past dozens of Chinese-made motorcycle taxis dropping passengers at a station that was built and financed by Beijing. In a nod to the various interests making the journey on the western end of the dining car a TV plays a Netflix-produced English language film. Facing it from the eastern side is a screen showing a Chinese martial arts movie.

In the real world, the fight to control the Lobito corridor has tipped in favor of the West. In requesting a visit for President Lourenço to the White House, his lobbyist in Washington wrote to Biden administration officials that the African country’s leader was “shedding Angola’s historic relationships with China (and Russia) in favor of a new and strategic partnership with the US.”

At the end of November Biden welcomed Lourenço to the White House. And the rail project was front and center of their discussions.

Initially two Chinese groups had been lined up to operate both the port and the railway. The switch was an effort to diversify risk, according to Ricardo de Abreu, the Angolan transport minister. He says the Trafigura consortium had the best technical proposal, and was more closely aligned with the interests of the state: he wants the consortium to raise cargo capacity on the railway to 1.5 million tons annually within two years.

Ivanhoe sent a pilot shipment of copper exports from Kolwezi to the port in Lobito in December. It took eight days — less than a third of the time it would have taken to reach the traditional Durban port by road, offering dramatic cost savings. Subsequent journeys have averaged five days, according to Trafigura, which in February signed a deal, together with Ivanhoe, to become the line’s first long-term customers.

However, the shipment didn’t go to a western processing plant, it went to China. Hochstein is unfazed, arguing that the US is bringing its free market values to the project.

The line to the Atlantic coast terminates at Lobito port, for now a quiet seaside town. The US and its partners are gambling that mining and trading companies will take up the growing capacity. But there is skepticism about whether there will be enough demand.

The port in Lobito, Angola. The port in Lobito, Angola.

The port in Lobito, Angola. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

“It’s being built on the expectation that production from the copper belt will increase significantly, and this might not happen,” says Duncan Money, a mining historian who’s studied the central African copper belt. “In that case, the line will be redundant.”

In a forested patch of Zambia, just south of the border with Congo, a KoBold drill rig is trying to prove the doubters wrong. It towers about 20 meters high, and hauls up cylindrical cross sections of rock that are then neatly arranged in plastic trays before being taken a short drive to a warehouse filled with thousands of similar looking samples lined up in rows.

Shane Nielsen, principal geologist at KoBold Metals

Shane Nielsen, principal geologist at KoBold Metals. Photographer: Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg

A camera snaps images of the cross sections for software to process, accelerating an understanding of the metal deposits. The concentration of copper in these samples is more than 10 times higher than that found in top producer Chile, and each drill hole is proving the deposit to be much richer than initially thought, says Shane Nielsen, KoBold’s principal geologist.

“You could not put any more copper into this,” says Nielsen, clutching a tubular cross section of the rock. “it really is quite exceptional.”

(KoBold’s shareholders include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in which Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is an investor, according to the company’s website.)

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