March 25, 2024No Comments

Africa’s Critical Minerals: Shaping the Future of the Energy Transition 

Authors: Dan Ziebarth, Ingrid Heggstad, Miguel Jiménez Admetlla, Michele Mignogna - Political Economy, development & Energy Security Team


The need for critical minerals to achieve the energy transition cannot be stressed enough. According to the International Energy Agency, demand for these minerals will increase by a factor of four to sixfold. Just as with many other trends that begin to unfold, Africa holds the key since it sits on a vast supply of these resources. Yet, the way the continent approaches this matter could determine whether its history is rewritten or if there is a perpetuation of an uneven distribution of resource gains.

Several key indicators highlight Africa's importance in this context. More than half of African countries possess green minerals essential for the energy transition. Notably, the Democratic Republic of Congo boasts half of the world's cobalt reserves, crucial for batteries and electric vehicles. To fully leverage these resources, Africa must integrate its supply chain processes, capitalizing on value addition at every stage, from extraction to transportation.

Balancing a Just Transition for Africa: Challenges and Imperatives 

Mineral supply chains typically involve four stages, which can broadly be divided into extraction, refining, production, and recycling. Currently, the vast majority of African countries export critical minerals in their primary form, trapping the continent in a cycle known as the primary commodity trap.

Accordingly, Africa perceives a tiny percentage of the overall benefits, with forecasts suggesting that this situation is unlikely to improve shortly. Out of the projected $8.8 trillion market value of global batteries and the supply chain of EVs, only $55 billion is expected to flow to Africa. Thus, there is an urgent need for substantial reforms. However, this goal conflicts with the interests of countries aspiring to lead in renewable energy transitions. Indeed, to maintain sustainable growth without compromising inputs, these nations are eyeing the continent’s supply of rare earths

While ensuring that necessary minerals reach global markets is crucial for meeting climate agreements, the pioneers in energy transition such as the EU, the US and China ought to design climate policies which hold high standards. At the same time, even though some sort of protectionism has been put in place in the continent, this may be rather ineffective if ownership along the supply chain remains foreign. If the opposite occurs, it could turn out to be a Berlin Conference of the 21st century.

Co-opetition for Resources in Africa: The EU & China

Thus far, the EU has adopted the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRM Act) which sets ambitious targets for mineral processing, emphasizing reduced reliance on third countries. Precisely, it establishes targets for critical raw materials of meeting 10% of annual needs mined materials, 15% recycled materials, and 40% of materials processed in Europe by 2030 for minerals, while simultaneously not relying on a single third country for more than 65% for any material. Remarkably, two major roadblocks should be noted for the EU to achieve these targets. 

The first involves intensifying global competition for resources in Africa, particularly about China. As the green transition progresses, states are increasingly reliant on critical minerals from Africa, fueling competition for influence over these strategic resources. Aware of the risks associated with overreliance on a single supply chain, African countries have strategically prioritised diversifying their mineral partnerships. This strategic recalibration has added another layer of complexity to the geopolitical landscape, as access to the supply chains of critical minerals becomes yet another arena for the intricate dynamics of great power rivalry to unfold. 

Source: © AI generated picture

International competition for access to critical minerals navigates through alliances and rivalry alike. Geopolitical manoeuvring by influential players such as the US, China, and the EU is intricately tied to securing and managing critical minerals' supply chains. China possesses a dominant position in producing and refining African critical minerals, giving it significant influence over supply chain dynamics and sparking concern among other key stakeholders such as the EU and the US. This influence is evident in regions like the Horn of Africa, where the evolving engagement of China and the EU reveals intersecting interests and potential for both competition and collaboration

While China's growing economic presence in the region, driven by access to critical minerals and infrastructural projects, contrasts with the EU's emphasis on security initiatives and governance reforms, Chinese involvement has nonetheless produced benefits for infrastructural and economic development. Additionally, their security operations, including peacekeeping and anti-piracy efforts, have contributed to increased regional stability. These positive outcomes challenge prevalent negative narratives in the West regarding China's involvement in the region, offering the potential for cooperative influence and increased opportunity for strengthened stability in the region. Although it would require thorough preparation and collaborative endeavours, Chinese and European involvement in the Horn of Africa holds the potential for a mutually beneficial outcome. 

Additionally, a second major consideration regarding the CRM Act is ensuring that local communities in Africa are safeguarded, while also supplying enough critical minerals to achieve targets. A common concern locally is that extractive industries, such as mining, will place several negative consequences on the environmental and social conditions in mining communities in Africa. To ensure a just transition, the mineral supply chain process must provide sufficient protection for mining communities in Africa to not harm or exploit them over the long term. Within this geopolitical context, African countries emerge not solely as suppliers of the critical minerals for the green transition but also as significant influencers in shaping global power dynamics. 

As these countries strive to break free from the primary commodity trap, their choices concerning trade agreements, alliances, policies for resource extraction, and infrastructure expansion resonate throughout the entire supply chain. African countries’ involvement introduces a new dimension to international competition, where countries and blocs vie not only for access to critical minerals but also for influence over their strategic decisions. 

Africa's mineral wealth forms an essential bedrock for industries worldwide, as the supply chain of strategic minerals extends across multiple facets in the development towards sustainable solutions. Therefore, countries depend on a consistent and unbroken supply of these minerals, wherein the evolution and dynamics of this supply chain can send shockwaves throughout the global economy and geopolitical landscape. 


In conclusion, the continent, and the whole world, stands at a crossroads. The approach to African resource management will determine whether it can break free from historical patterns of exploitation. The goal, as stated in the African Green Minerals Development Strategy Approach Paper, is to guide Africa to strategically exploit the continent’s green mineral resources for industrialisation and to assert control over its destiny to create an African presence in emerging green technologies. A shift towards integrated supply chain management, sustainable extraction practices, and prioritisation of local community welfare is imperative to harness the full benefits of Africa's mineral wealth while mitigating adverse consequences.

In this context, international cooperation and strategic partnerships are essential to navigate the complexities of the evolving geopolitical landscape surrounding critical minerals and to ensure that the global shift to clean technologies does not come to the detriment of African communities. 

Long story short, Africa's pivotal role in the global supply chain of critical minerals underscores the continent's potential to shape the trajectory of the energy transition and influence global power dynamics. By making informed choices and fostering cooperation, African countries can not only unlock economic opportunities but also play a significant role in shaping a more equitable and sustainable global future.

However, this potential comes with significant challenges and considerations.

November 7, 2022No Comments

Critical Raw Materials and EU’s Open Strategic Autonomy

Authors: Riccardo Bosticco, Miguel Jimenez and Michele Mignogna.


As the energy transition is one of our age's greatest challenges, developments in this direction are likely to exert notable impacts on broader international political and economic processes. In the European Union (EU) case, Russia’s war on Ukraine has taught the importance of avoiding dangerous dependencies and adapting to an increasingly conflictive world. The EU wants to achieve Open Strategic Autonomy (OSA) for this purpose. Moreover, this is of particular significance to understanding the EU’s policy on Critical Raw Materials (CRMs). Thus, this article explains the EU’s approach to CRMs and its connection to the concept of OSA.

The CRMs Landscape 

CRMs are crucial materials for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels, batteries for electric storage and cars and the development of technologies for digitalisation. The energy transition cannot be achieved without their availability. Among them, some of the most familiar are lithium, cobalt, platinum, and tungsten, yet the latest Act by the European Commission identifies around 30. A distinctive feature of CRMs is their limited and concentrated supply. According to the forecasts of the International Energy Agency, the net-zero equation will be solved with renewables such as wind and solar, predicted to account for 70% of power generation by 2050. Those countries where these materials are abundant would become green-commodity superpowers. Indeed, by 2040, those nations could pocket an estimated annual revenue of $1.2trn. CRMs share some features with fossil fuels. They are unevenly distributed. For instance, one-half of the world’s cobalt supply is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, South Africa possesses around 40% of the world’s manganese, while lithium is heavily concentrated in Chile, Argentina and Australia. Secondly, this endowment is mostly located in recognised autocracies, making them uncertain suppliers considering the instability of this type of governments. If there is one country which is way ahead in the race, not only in terms of being the major source to many of them but also by controlling 80% of the processing capacity, that is China. The current arm-wrestling with Russia has made EU countries aware of the vulnerabilities of relying on external sources for indispensable materials in the future. Thus, they have deployed measures to decrease dependency on China for these materials, which currently satisfies 98% of the demand for rare earth permanent magnets, a subcategory of rare earths

The EU’s Approach to CRMs

After the experience of the European Battery Alliance (EBA), in September 2020, European Commission Vice President Šefčovič and Commissioner Breton launched the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA) as part of theAction Plan on Critical Raw Materials. The alliance aims to secure access to CRMs, advanced materials, and processing know-how for EU industrial ecosystems. Equally to the EBA, the ERMA involves relevant industries along the CRMs value chain, Member States and regions, trade unions, research and technology organisations, investors, and NGOs. To better understand the EU’s approach to CRMs, it is helpful to look at previous policy inputs by the EU in this field. In 2008, the European Parliament (EP) resolution on trade in raw materials and commodities made the point that access to raw materials is vital for the EU economy and highlighted the minor involvement of European industries in the exploration of such materials in third countries. The same year, the Raw Materials Initiative proposed an integrated strategy based on ensuring access, proper framework conditions to guarantee supplies, and resource efficiency to reduce consumption and dependencies. Later resolutions extended the actors involved, including the European External Action Service and other relevant stakeholders, to engage in resource diplomacy. In February 2012, a European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials proposal was published. It expressed the need to create a “critical mass towards the single objective of ensuring sustainable access to raw materials” by stimulating synergies between different policy instruments and Member States. Moreover, the Communication on CRMs Resilience stressed the strategic priority of securing CRMs and acknowledged their relevance to achieving open strategic autonomy. Hence, ERMA was given birth to create synergies among European CRMs stakeholders to address concentrated global markets, overcome technical barriers to investments and innovations, and ensure public awareness and policy acceptance, thus making the EU autonomous and strategic in this sector. While designing the ERMA’s role, the Commission Staff Working Document on Strategic Dependencies and Capacities indicated its purposes to create resilient value chains and investment pipelines, identify mining and investment projects and facilitate contacts with investors to compete on global markets. Yet, such developments have to be analysed in the cadre of overall EU policy directions, and for this purpose, the concept of OSA needs further discussion.  

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Expanding Horizons: the EU Open Strategic Autonomy

The debate on the EU’s strategic autonomy has been central in the agenda of the EU’s institutions since the 2010s. As the 2016 Council defined it, strategic autonomy is “the capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”. In 2022, the EP has been more specific by stating that “the EU strategic autonomy refers to the capacity of the EU to act autonomously – that is, without being dependent on other countries – in strategically important policy areas [which] range from defence policy to the economy, and the capacity to uphold democratic values.” Notably, strategic autonomy expands well beyond the military and defence, with an increasing number of strategic sectors identified, and it has now evolved into the concept of Open Strategic Autonomy. As Josep Borrell has observed, after Covid-19, “strategic autonomy has been widened to new subjects of an economic and technological nature". In a recent study by the EP, OSA is defined as “the ability to act autonomously, to rely on one’s own resources in key strategic areas and to cooperate with partners whenever needed”. Specifically, the new concept deals with emerging challenges and future chances, encompassing five dimensions and looking at them holistically: geopolitics, technology, economy, environment, and society. OSA drives the EU to be economically and geopolitically stronger by reinforcing its economic assets and industries. It strengthens the international role of the Euro to sustain the economy, finance the recovery from the crisis, and stay competitive and connected to the rest of the world. It makes the EU sustainable and responsible by solidifying existing alliances, cooperating with like-minded partners, and increasing its internal political cohesion to lead the construction of a greener and more equitable society. It aspires to act assertively against unfair trade practices, keeping its liberal soul by favouring global cooperation and multilateralism to address complex issues. In this view, the trade dimension of OSA focuses on supply chain resilience and sustainability. For instance, it might encompass the repatriation of strategic industries back to the EU or reshoring. Yet, this should not mean that international trade or partnerships would be jeopardised. It gives the opportunity to act more assertively by choosing trade partners more selectively without losing normative ambitions to fight for a healthier society and environment. Moreover, it requires the EU to avoid past misunderstandings, for instance, by reducing its vulnerability to external sources of supply. As argued by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič at the Raw Materials Security of Europe Conference, this is exactly the case with CMRs.


Global economic developments challenge the ambitions of the EU. Indeed, the prior balance between interdependence and autonomy is being rearranged as a result of structural shifts in the global economy and world order. Some have identified such developments as a geoeconomic turn, namely a shift away from the liberal international order. With a particular focus on a crucial sector at the heart of the green transition, this article has outlined how the EU is trying to adapt to the challenge of a changing environment. As it has demonstrated, the EU looks like it cannot rely on market forces anymore. If this is the case, as the flourishing literature on geoeconomics suggests, then the next challenge for the EU will be to act cohesively and effectively on the global ground without losing its market competitiveness.