DRC: Trafigura, Ivanhoe sign copper export deal via US-backed corridor

The corridor to the Angolan port of Lobito has been part-funded by Washington as part of its efforts to help Western companies compete with China for access to African minerals.

Trafigura announced that Ivanhoe’s Kamoa-Kakula mine in DRC would be assigned capacity on the route at the Mining Indaba, an annual industry summit in Cape Town, South Africa.

After an initial 10,000 tonnes of copper products in 2024, as the line comes into service, the mine would be able to ship between 120,000 and 240,000 tonnes per year to the Atlantic port.

Trafigura’s chairman and CEO Jeremy Weir said the industry hopes “to grow the volumes on the corridor so that it becomes the leading rail transport link in sub-Saharan Africa”.

Ivanhoe Mines’ founder and co-chair Robert Friedland thanked the Trafigura-led Lobito Corridor consortium and the governments of Angola and DRC.

Lobito, he said, is “fast becoming one of the most important trade routes for vital copper metal in the world” and will unlock access to minerals in other parts of Central Southern Africa.

The Lobito Corridor is not just an economic opportunity for poor land-locked African countries like DRC and Zambia attempting to get their minerals to oil-rich Angola’s ports.

It is also a playing piece in the geopolitical battle between the United States and its allies and China, which is securing access to African mines with promises of infrastructure investments.

Last month, Washington’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visited Angola to tout the US counteroffer, including its massive investment in the Lobito Corridor.

“This project has genuinely transformative potential for this nation, for this region and, I would argue, for the world,” Blinken said.

Washington has vowed to fund 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) of rail and to work with multinational lenders to expand the project to Tanzania, connecting the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The route will transport resources critical to the global economy, including copper and cobalt, both vital in the production of solar panels and electronics like smartphones.

Civil war damage

Trafigura’s consortium has a 30-year contract to run the Lobito railway and minerals port and potential financing of $250m from the US International Development Finance Corporation.

“The investment will enable the renovation of sections of the railway line and associated infrastructure, in addition to securing more than 1,500 wagons and 35 locomotives,” the firm said.

Currently stretching about 1,700 kilometres (1,050 miles), the railway was completed a century ago by British investors seeking African copper.

The Angolan section of the line was closed during the height of the country’s 1975-2002 civil war and remained in disuse afterwards due to damage.

Mining firms currently transport metals via truck on long and costly journeys to other often congested ports in Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

Rebuilt by a Chinese company, it reopened in 2015 but traffic has struggled to take off.

When the revamp was announced last year, only about one train every two weeks ran over it, according to Vecturis, a Belgian railway operator and part of the consortium.

The Congolese stretch dates back to colonial times and is even more poorly maintained, with derailments more than daily.

Mining firms currently transport metals via truck on long and costly journeys to other often congested ports in Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

The consortium, which also includes Portuguese construction firm Mota-Engil, hopes the revamped railway will slash transit times from DRC to Lobito to under 36 hours.

The governments along the route hope the new export line will supercharge their economies by scores of billions of dollars over the decades to come.

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