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Despite the global outcry and maelstrom of debate over deep-sea mining, key actors are emerging from Europe, Asia and the Pacific Islands. For instance, the Norwegian parliament recently approved deep seabed mining on its extended continental shelf, paving the way for future activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

China holds five of the 31 exploration licences granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN-affiliated body charged with regulating deep seabed mining activities, the most of any one country. Canadian firm The Metals Company has secured the sponsorship of Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga for its deep seabed mining projects. 

However, absent from this recent flurry of activity are African countries. Though the trajectory of deep seabed mining is hardly fixed, many argue that it is a matter of when, rather than if, deep seabed mining production will commence off the continent. If that is indeed the case, what are the implications of the rush to mine the deep seabed for Africa? 

African countries are top producers of many of the same prized minerals also found in polymetallic nodules and ferromanganese crusts on the deep seabed: copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese. These minerals, demand for which the International Energy Agency predicts will more than double by 2030, are vital to the energy transition for their use in electric vehicle batteries and other green technologies.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the largest producer of cobalt in the world, and in 2023 Madagascar became the fifth largest. DRC is also the third-largest producer of copper, with neighbouring Zambia in the top 10. Of the largest producers of manganese, four are African countries: SA (number one), Gabon (number two), Ghana (number four) and Ivory Coast (number eight).

Deep seabed mining production could therefore become a new source of competition for some African countries, and land-based producers — especially those with large shares of their GDPs coming from mineral exports — could take a beating economically. 

Recognising this, the ISA commissioned a study in 2022 to assess the potential effects of deep seabed mining on the economies of developing states engaged in land-based mining of these minerals. Of the 13 countries the study found most likely to experience negative economic effects from seabed mining, eight are African: Zambia, DRC, Eritrea, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Mauritania and Namibia.

The extent to which land-based producers will face competition from deep seabed mining production depends on world prices for these minerals. Low world prices are likely to make deep seabed mining projects uneconomical and favour lower-cost, land-based producers, assuming production can increase to keep revenues stable. 

Investors in deep seabed mining are banking on high prices, fuelled by increasing demand for critical minerals and the declining productivity of conventional mines. However, in this era of strategic competition cost is but one factor in investment and sourcing decisions. Western consumers of these minerals, particularly the US, have shown their willingness to sacrifice on cost for the sake of diversification and “friend-shoring”. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns, for example over child labour in DRC and mass deforestation in Indonesia for nickel mining, may also tip the scales towards otherwise uneconomical sources.

African countries are unprepared for this major development in a key sector. While the 48 African ISA member states have participated in the ongoing negotiations on deep seabed mining regulations, largely en bloc as the Ghana-led Africa Group, none has sponsored any deep seabed mining exploration licences. This is despite efforts by the ISA secretariat, the AU and the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation to encourage deep seabed activities, including but not limited to mining activities through the Africa Deep Seabed Resources Project.

Outside the ISA, Edwin Egede of the Institute for Security Studies Africa argues that the AU and Economic Community of West Africa have been apathetic towards deep seabed mining.

No African country possesses the technological capacity for deep seabed mining exploitation. Consider Namibia, which has mined diamonds offshore since the 1960s. In 2022 Debmarine Namibia, a joint venture between the Namibian government and De Beers, inaugurated the Benguela Gem, the largest offshore diamond recovery vessel in the world. 

In Namibia’s offshore mining activities some might see a nascent capacity for deep seabed mining. However, they are incomparable in terms of complexity: the Bengula Gem dredges the sea floor at depths of 90m-150m, while the kinds of activities under debate at the ISA occur at depths of 3.5km-6km. 

Even exploration, a prerequisite for deep seabed mining exploitation, is a challenge. According to the 2022 Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment, 65% of African respondents believed their regions lacked the technological capacity for deep-sea exploration. Faced with a lack of domestic capacity, African countries could choose to sponsor foreign-based businesses, as Nauru is sponsoring The Metals Company. 

While this would allow them to receive some percentage of the royalties from the project, such an arrangement does not build capacity for countries to pursue deep seabed mining activities of their own. A potential alternative is for a group of African countries with shared interests in deep seabed mining to pool their resources and jointly sponsor deep seabed mining activities. Resource-pooling such as this could help African countries overcome gaps in technical capacity.

The absence of African countries in the current landscape of deep seabed mining raises questions about their readiness to adapt to a critical development in mining, especially considering the importance of the sector to many of the continent’s economies. Developing the capacity for deep-sea activities, including mining exploration and exploitation, will require African countries to pursue strategic partnerships and joint initiatives. Only then will the continent be poised to ensure that it is not left behind in the rush to mine the deep seabed.

• Zamek is a graduate student in the Georgetown University foreign service programme, specialising in energy and the global environment with an emphasis on critical minerals. 

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