Monday, October 18, 2021

Will Batswana benefit from oncoming massive electric-vehicle revolution?

It seems an odd thing to say but where economic empowerment is concerned, it has become necessary to differentiate Botswana from Batswana, especially indigenous Batswana. There is no question that the electric-vehicle revolution that is slowly but surely rippling out of its epicentre in the west will reach Botswana. However, there is a question about whether it benefit indigenous Batswana as handsomely as it did a South African-Canadian man, Elon Musk, who is now the world’s richest person.

In the west and in some parts of Asia, the electric vehicle is already replacing the internal combustion engine (ICE). The best estimate puts the current number of ICE cars, trucks and buses at around 1.32 billion. Southern and Central Africa stand to benefit the most from a global project to replace these with electric vehicles. That is because the spectrum of minerals and ores required for the global shift to electric vehicles are found in those regions. The African Development Bank says as much: “Countries in Africa that will benefit are mainly found in the Central and Southern regions (e.g., Angola, Botswana, DRC, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe) with aluminum, chrome, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, platinum, tin, uranium and zinc.” The African Natural Resources Centre, an arm of the Bank, has mentioned Botswana among African nations endowed with “significant” lithium and cobalt reserves.

“Lithium occurrences are known to exist in many other sub-Saharan countries, among them Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda and Mali, with exploration showing positive signs for a find of huge economic benefit,” the ANRC said in a report that it put out two months ago, adding that lithium brines are known to exist in the Kalahari and Namib desert regions “but little exploration activity has taken place to determine their potential for economic exploitation.”

When full-scale exploration and exploitation occur, would some Batswana be left behind as happened with diamonds? Officially, Botswana is an “economic success story”, a “high middle-income country” that some have called “the Switzerland of Africa.” This success story doesn’t account for almost half the population that is economically marginalised, with the youth making up a disproportionate share of the poor. It typically doesn’t mention the fact that Botswana is the fourth most unequal country in the world after South Africa, Namibia and Haiti, nor that Botswana’s bottom 50 percent own only 8.1 percent of national wealth while the top 10 percent own 59.3 percent.

The electric vehicle revolution will require the battery metals of cobalt, lithium and nickel as well as copper – all of which Botswana has. With regard to the latter, the ANRC has stated that Botswana is showing potential for stratiform-type copper deposits that are similar, and probably equivalent in size, to the Zambian Copperbelt.

“It could be only a matter of time before a deposit like those currently known, is discovered in the SADC region and its member states should develop mechanisms on how to create regional benefit from such a resource,” it says.

If nothing else, the diamond story impresses upon one the fact that mere mineral endowment is no guarantee that everyone will benefit from such endowment. It is more than likely that the top 10 percent will benefit from the oncoming massive electric-vehicle revolution at the expense of the bottom 50 percent.

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