Demand for critical raw materials (also called ‘critical minerals’) globally is growing rapidly, with significant implications for Namibia and African countries at large. As the United Nations Environmental Programme noted in their recent report on the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, held in Addis Ababa between 4–16 August 2023, “To meet the expected rise in global demand, the production of minerals and metals such as lithium, graphite and cobalt [and others] will need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050.”
The question of how such minerals and metals should be sourced and where from is vital. African countries hold as much as 30% of the world’s critical mineral reserves, many of which are essential for renewable and low-carbon technologies. However, critical minerals are not geographically evenly distributed. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have significant deposits, with investment surging in other parts of the continent where critical mineral deposits are being prospected.
However, despite being major producers of critical minerals, the challenge is that African countries often export their natural resources without significant value addition (i.e., processing or refining). This not only locks out African economies from integration as part of global value chains it also reduces the potential economic benefits of trade for the continent. Hence, this has prompted fears of a renewed ‘resource curse’ whereby mining activities promote rent seeking behaviour rather than positive development outcomes.
So how can critical raw materials be a force for African development? The answer lies in leveraging the continent’s strategic position as a supplier of critical minerals to embed local processing and value addition. The aim is not only to attract new investment and increase the competitiveness of the mining sector in African economies, but also to ensure ‘sustainable local economic development’ through regional cooperation, industrial development, and economic diversification, while also utilising investments from global mining corporations in the sector to build human capital and skills to enhance capacity for local production, processing and consumption.
Arguably, Namibia is at the forefront of this process of harnessing critical minerals for sustainable development purposes. Global players such as the European Union and Japan have signed notable agreements with Namibia to source critical minerals. Through its decision on 8 June 2023, Namibia became one of the first African countries to ban the bulk export of unprocessed minerals including lithium, graphite and cobalt. Success of such a policy depends on gaining support and buy-in from mining companies, investors and others to ensure development of refining capacity and downstream production. This, including investing in skills and training to ensure Namibians, can take advantage of new jobs and opportunities.
The policy also seeks to influence mining corporations and investors’ behaviours toward taking a more holistic and long-term sustainable view of mining projects in terms of local benefits for Namibia. For it to succeed, there are arguably four vital focus areas:
Mining, processing and refining of critical minerals is capital, labour, water, and energy intensive and these resources require sustainable management.
Strong environmental management practices are needed to prevent pollution, destruction of natural habitats, and to protect the natural environment, human health and community livelihoods.
Human rights diligence and corporate social responsibility issues should be addressed where relevant to ensure transparency accountability and fair outcomes in the minerals supply chain.
For critical minerals policies to be effective, differentiation of strategies for specific minerals is required to adequately respond to shifting global trends and demands.
Namibia is now at the threshold of major policy innovation on critical raw materials. In its assessment a key consideration would be ‘How can various key stakeholders involved in the Namibian mining sector work together to achieve sustainable local economic development, and in doing so under what conditions?’ Particularly, there is limited available evidence on the interactions between various actors and stakeholders considered essential for the success of Namibian mining policies, and there is a need for more evidence on these collaborations. For example, the multi-country AfricaMaval project with contributions from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (Nust) has sought to address critical minerals value chains, expertise and experience in the continent.
Following closely the initiatives of the Namibian Ministry of Mines and Energy, it is my privilege, as an invited research fellow at the Department of Civil, Mining and Process Engineering at Nust to promote better understanding of mining sector stakeholder perspectives. This involves initiating dialogues with main players involved in the mining sector from academia/research; professionals, industry bodies and mining companies; civil society and trade unions; and government and policymakers. My field research seeks to capture and present authentic stakeholder voices and perspectives to suggest how Namibia’s natural resources can be leveraged to achieve sustainable local economic development aspirations.
* Adil Sait is a PhD candidate in Economic Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Views expressed are entirely his own, and not that of either LSE or NUST.