Lithium mining in Africa reveals dark side of green energy

@Jack Wolfe, New Lines Magazine

Efforts to address the global climate emergency are leading to an increased demand for renewable energy technology, particularly in the Global North, including electric vehicles and the batteries required to power them. Africa is one of the new frontiers in a race for battery metals, and lithium – sometimes referred to as ‘white gold’ – is one of the most sought-after commodities.

Global Witness investigated three emerging lithium mines in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). What we found shows that the rush for lithium on the continent – far from delivering a ‘just energy transition’ – risks fuelling corruption, and a range of other environmental, social and governance (ESG) problems. For generations African nations have been exploited for their minerals, and as the demand for ‘transition minerals’ hots up there is a danger of history repeating itself.

Our investigation looked at two of the first African mines to export lithium ore internationally – Zimbabwe’s Sandawana mine and Xinfeng Investments’ lithium mine in Uis, Namibia. We also looked into DRC’s Manono project, believed to be Africa’s largest lithium deposit.

We found that:

  • In Zimbabwe, the Sandawana mine saw a lithium rush involving thousands of artisanal diggers working in unsafe conditions, with reports of child labour and miners being buried by a mine collapse. In early 2023 it was reported that the diggers had been evicted, their minerals reportedly confiscated and the mine taken over by companies with close links to Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and military, including firms subject to US or EU sanctions. Despite an official ban on unprocessed lithium exports, the politically-connected Sandawana mine appears to have been exempted, trucking thousands of tonnes of ore out of the country during 2023.
  • In Namibia, Chinese-owned firm Xinfeng Investments has been accused of acquiring its Uis lithium mine through bribery. There is also evidence that Xinfeng developed the industrial mine using permits intended for local small-scale miners. This seems to have allowed Xinfeng to start mining a major lithium deposit for as little as US$140, while dodging the need for an environmental impact assessment. Local communities and Namibian parliamentarians have accused Xinfeng of housing workers in ‘apartheid conditions’, buying off local chiefs and scaring away the wildlife that brings tourist dollars into the area. Xinfeng has shipped thousands of tonnes of raw lithium ore to China, failing to deliver on promises to build processing facilities within Namibia.
  • In DRC, the development of the Manono lithium deposit – stalled by a dispute involving Australian and Chinese mining companies – has raised numerous corruption red flags. The project appears to have generated as much as US$28 million for shell companies held by middlemen implicated in previous corruption scandals involving ex-President Joseph Kabila. Furthermore, a senior official in current President Felix Tshisekedi’s party reportedly received $1.6 million in ‘commission’ from Zijin Mining when it acquired shares in the project. The state-owned mining company that signed the Manono deals has been accused by DRC’s anti-corruption agency of selling lithium rights at a “cut price” and “squandering” the proceeds.


These cases show that as the lithium rush ramps up, some of the risks facing mineral-rich countries are all too real. The mineral supply chains for the batteries that will power the green energy revolution should benefit producer nations. Instead, they could embed corruption, fail to develop local economies, and harm citizens and the environment. Battery makers, car firms and policy-makers in consumer countries must ensure that battery mineral supply chains are rigorously screened for corruption and other ESG risks.