May 6, 2024

Advancing Mineral-Energy Nexus for Development (MEND) in Africa: From a Concept to Practices

In recent years, Chinese overseas investments in renewable energy and transitional mineral sectors have attracted tremendous academic, professional, and political attention. The general rhetoric in the global North is a rather divided one, as many believe China has been investing too little in renewable energies in the global South, but too much in critical minerals instead. For example, since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2021 that China would stop financing coal-fired power plants, there has been an intense discussion on how to convince China to scale up its renewable energy investments, particularly in Africa. China’s massive investments in mining and processing critical minerals, particularly in the African and Latin American regions, have created a parallel but rather contrasted discussion, with Western countries openly expressing concern about China’s growing dominance in the global value chain of EV batteries and the urgent need to implement a proper ‘de-risking’ strategy.

However, one critical voice is often missing during these ongoing debates, namely that from the recipient countries of Chinese investments, who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of Chinese ‘green’ investments. Considering that many of these recipient countries are in the global South, it is increasingly clear that they have distinctively different concerns regarding the growing Chinese investments in the green energy and critical minerals sectors. Given that the investments in these two strategic sectors would have profound impacts on their development trajectory both at the national and local levels, two inter-related questions emerge as particularly acute:

The first question is about national-level development for the recipient countries, by asking how they could seize the opportunities to foster green industrial capacities as the engine for their sustainable development. As wind, solar, and transitional minerals become newly endowed strategic resources, just like fossil fuels and precious minerals once played, how can these countries achieve notable economic/industrial ‘catching-up’ with new endowments and prevent another round of ‘resource curse’?

At the local level, the inquiry is about local development opportunities or benefits accrued from these green investments, and the need to achieve a ‘just transition’. It asks how local communities and residents can be provided with better public goods and learning opportunities in relation to these investments, and how the locals can be empowered to take on an inclusive development journey as a result.

This paper aims to tackle these two interrelated questions via a micro-level analysis regarding the provision of sustainable energy supply for critical mining and processing activities in Africa. On the national level, the governance of mining and electricity sectors has become increasingly converging in recent years after many host governments with rich mineral resources announced ambitious industrialization plans. These intervention policies encourage investors to develop additional processing capacities as initial steps to prevent resource grabbing and promote industrial capacities at home. Yet, the shortage of power infrastructures and supply to the mining/processing sites is a major constraint, particularly where close to 80% of these mining activities are to be located in rural and indigenous territories in Africa. Innovative and practical solutions are urgently needed on the ground.

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