Central Africa: Lobito Corridor – Hoping to Break China’s Grip On African Ore

Central Africa hopes to revive a trade route from colonial…

Central Africa hopes to revive a trade route from colonial times. Europe and the US support the ambitious plans by DR Congo, Angola and Zambia to shore up green energy resources — and also face up to China’s influence.

In the Congolese border town of Kasumbalesa, you will see one delivery truck after another, in a long queue of more than ten kilometers.

Their trailers are covered with tarpaulins to protect the precious cargo: heavy copper plates and bags filled with cobalt.

Trucker Tito Mandela has turned of the engine of his Mercedes truck and waits in his driver’s cabin for literally anything to happen.

“Today, we have only moved maybe 500 meters. We haven’t even reached one kilometer,” the 52-year-old complains. “So now that the day is almost finishing, we haven’t even reached the border. We really need to go to the customs (office) today. But I don’t know whether we will make it.”

Long journeys for precious metals

Even after finally crossing the border with Zambia, the trucker will still have a long journey ahead: For his South African forwarding company, Mandela is supposed to transport the precious payload of his vehicle all the way from the DR Congo’s southern mining region to the Indian Ocean port of Durban.

This is where the journey continues further, but not for Mandela: there the ore will be loaded on ships headed for Asia — especially China.

A new corridor through the Copper Belt

The appetite for various ores as commodities in the energy transition market is growing. The DRC quarries more than two thirds of the worldwide production of cobalt.

The ore is a required component in many modern-day electronic products, especially to make batteries for electric vehicles.

But it’s still a long way there for the payload on the back of Mandela’s truck: the drive is often held up by queues of more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) at the border.

Shareholders of major corporations share Mandela’s frustration and are now exploring the idea of turning to an alternative route to link the African Copper Belt up with the rest of the world.

This plan involves an Angolan port city, once a strategic transatlantic trade point, which also lends its name to the trade corridor: Lobito

Crunching straight-forward numbers

In October 2023, the United States and the European Union passed a declaration to support efforts to revive and strengthen the Lobito corridor, especially by assisting with finding investors for the project, which according to US government officials will cost more than $1 billion (€1 billion).

For Washington and Brussels, linking the Copper Belt with the Atlantic Ocean is, however, also a geopolitical move in their race against Beijing. China currently dominates the market for the strategic supply chains for the energy transition.

The DRC has great expectations of the new partnership: “This could boost our economic growth,” Roger Te-Biasu, coordinator of CEPCOR, a government agency under the Congolese ministry of transport, told DW. “Compared to other transport paths in the region, the Lobito corridor is the best.”

Looking at the distances between the Copper Belt and various ports shows why: From the mining capital of Kolwezi in the DRC to Lobito in Angola, the distance measures 1,600 kilometers — half the distance to Durban, South Africa.

Rail beats road

In addition to these shorter distances, the fact that the Lobito corridor is a rail link also helps drum up excitement for the project: Hauling cargo on rails is far more climate-friendly.

And there is yet another upside: Not a single tree has been felled for the new railway line, as the trains are set to run on a historic artery that is already in place, but needs a major revamp.

Belgium and Portugal had built the tracks between 1902 and 1929, meandering through Congo and Angola. But during the civil war following Angola’s 1975 independence, the transport route collapsed and has had little attention paid to it since.

Now it is being revived: “Everything is already set on the Angolan side,” Te-Biasu told DW. “1,348 kilometers of railway tracks between Lobito and Luao are already built. The accompanying roads are there, the international airport for Lobito, the ore shipping terminal, the dry port.”

However, in the Congolese mining town of Kolwezi, the infrastructures are not quite as advanced yet. Next to the tracks, youngsters are playing basketball, and the station terminal looks like a museum of colonial architecture.

According to Te-Biasu, the “true bottleneck” for the Lobito corridor is on the Congolese side: “The condition of the railways that side leaves a lot to be desired. There’s still no investment from the Congolese government.”

Investing and intervening

Meanwhile, there are baby steps in the right direction: an operator for the corridor has finally been found. A consortium led by Swiss commodity trader Trafigura has secured the usage rights for over 30 years under the name “Lobito Atlantic Railway.”

They plan to invest around $500 million in locomotives, coaches and additional infrastructure.

By 2035, the consortium hopes that import and export through the line will amount to 3 billion tons of goods.

And it is supposed to be faster: Each haul is supposed to take eight days — currently, a truck to Durban spends nearly a month on the road.

Chinese access to Atlantic

Trafigura stresses, the consortium will not allow a monopoly to grow on the Lobito corridor. This, however, means that Chinese mine operators could also use the rail-link to export through Lobito.

Christian Geraud Neema, an analyst at the China Global South Project, believes that Chinese operators will do just that: “Looking at long-term economical implications, even just the access to the sea will open a chance to Chinese enterprises,” Neema told DW.