Long stories short
- Donald Trump said he would appeal after being found liable for sexual assault (more below).
- Arman Soldin, a French journalist, was killed by a Russian missile in Ukraine.
- A Croatian song mocking Putin as a moron went through to the Eurovision semi-finals.
In April, US Vice President Kamala Harris went on a weeklong tour of Africa, including a stop in Zambia, a quiet and successful southern African country that no one in the West pays much attention to. Her top agenda item? Challenging China on the continent where Beijing is strongest.
So what? One of the most important roads in the world runs through Zambia. China dominates the route. Behind the scenes, nervous US officials are now jousting with Beijing for influence over it.
Africa’s artery. The road stretches from the vast cobalt reserves in the city of Kolwezi in south-eastern DR Congo (DRC) through Zambia’s copper belt. It then splits into two branches:
- One leads through Zimbabwe, the other through Botswana. Both end in Durban, the largest port in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Most of the world’s cobalt and a lot of its copper bounce down these potholed roads every day. The vast majority is shipped to China for processing.
- Another less-used route cuts through Zambia to Tanzania’s main port in Dar-es-Salaam.
Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. It’s used in almost every electronic device. Every iPhone battery contains ten grams of it. There’s even more in a computer and about 14 kilos in an electronic vehicle. It keeps a battery’s internal structure stable and limits the risk of it blowing up in your pocket.
By the numbers:
- 75 – percentage share of the world’s cobalt that is mined in DRC, home to half the world’s known reserves
- 77 – percentage share of the world’s cobalt that is refined in China
- 75 – percentage share of the world’s lithium-ion batteries that are made in China, compared with 7 per cent in the US
- 100 – factor by which demand for cobalt is expected to go up by 2050
Green revolution. America has woken up to cobalt’s importance. It has classified cobalt as a “strategic and critical” mineral for “diverse commercial, industrial, and military applications”.
It is now lobbying governments along the road:
- The Biden administration is using its financial heft and influence with the IMF to push for debt restructuring measures favourable to Lusaka, after $6 billion in Chinese loans at draconian rates forced Zambia into default in 2020.
- China is furious – it has told the US to stop “sabotaging” other countries’ efforts to solve their debt problems.
- The US has also offered to pay for international accountancy firms to audit Chinese contracts in DRC.
- Most recently, in March, the US agreed to strengthen DRC’s and Zambia’s ability to process cobalt and produce EV batteries themselves, widely seen as a counterpunch to Beijing.
Experts say the coming green revolution depends on this African route running smoothly. But there are already problems. Sometimes it takes more than a month to get from DRC to Durban (about 3,000km) because of corruption, tailbacks and checkpoints.
- Armed gangs in DRC, Zimbabwe and South Africa can make a good living from hijackings. Traders say a truckload of cobalt can be worth anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000. Often trucks will travel in convoys with armed guards.
- South African border closures during the pandemic and serious riots in Durban in 2021 have scared mining companies. They are trying to shift more cobalt and copper through Tanzania, Namibia and Mozambique.
- Some mining companies want to resurrect an old colonial railway through DRC to Angola. But all these countries’ ports are tiny compared with Durban’s.
For now, if a conflict broke out along this road or there were serious blocks for any reason – say from a well-placed militia group – battery prices would begin to soar.
As one trader said: “It’s every trader’s dream that something happens to the road.”
Also, in the nibs
Photographs Zinyange Auntony/Bloomberg via Getty Images
IN OUR MEMBERS’ APP
There are many competing visions for Iran and for what the country could become – in this final episode, Paul asks whether enough is being done to protect Iranians overseas.