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Lobito corridor: Hoping to break China's grip on African ore

Jonas Gerding
February 8, 2024

Congo, Angola and Zambia are seeking to revive a trade route dating back to colonial times. Europe and the US support the ambitious plans to shore up green energy resources.

Lorries queuing on a road - overtaken by smaller cars
Miles and miles of lorry queues are a familiar sight on border postings - adding cost to the ore tradeImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

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."

Tito Mandela poses next to his rig truck
Tito Mandela would drive from the DRC mines to Durban, South Africa - as long as he is not held up in border queuesImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

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 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.

Roger Te-Biasu poses in front of a staircase
Roger Te-Biasu has great expectations for the Lobito railway corridorImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

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.

A four-track road with a lorry queue on one of the tracks
Queues are a regular nuisance for lorry drivers - and a cost factor for exportersImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

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.

Ships from Lobito to China would still have to circumnavigate southern Africa — but the railway option would be cheaper than the cumbersome truck route.

Competition fueling progress

This is why the China Railways Group has invested more than a billion dollars in Angola's railway lines.

"Looking at the map, you might find many Chinese mining projects in DRC and Zambia," Neema added. The presence of Western companies like the Swiss mining corporation Glencore is still rather an exception, but may hold a promising future:

In the present context, most mines in the DRC do sell their ore to China, where in 2022 more than three quarters of worldwide cobalt production was processed.

According to Neema, this is where Europe and the US could introduce a different offering to Africa and win over influence and support: "At this point, one should maybe support DRC to locally process the ores up to a certain degree," he said.

This is what Zambia and the DRC ultimately are aiming for. Currently, both countries are running a feasibility analysis for a joint pilot factory for battery precursors.

In this new scramble for Africa's resources, support for locally added value therefore could likely become the next field of competition between global superpowers.

A deep hole excavated by opencast mining - with lorries on the ground and mountains in the distance
Tenke Fungurume is one of the many Chinese-run mines within the Congolese Copper BeltImage: BENOIT DOPPAGNE/Belga/IMAGO

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson