The world’s cobalt supply is in jeopardy

Disney’s Black Panther is in theaters right now, breaking all kinds of box office records and wowing audiences. The film features a fictional, highly-advanced African country known as Wakanda, whose vast wealth and prosperity are derived almost exclusively from the mining of a rare, fantastical metal called vibranium.

In its own colorful way, Black Panther does an excellent job dramatizing mining’s important role in supplying the world with much-needed raw materials. Vibranium is the basis for everything in the film, from the title character’s flashy superhero suit, to Wakanda’s otherworldly infrastructure and vehicles, to its futuristic medicine and weaponry.

Like Wakanda, the real Africa is rich in minerals and metals, many of them extremely valuable. Think platinum and palladium in South Africa, diamonds in Botswana, copper in Zambia and cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Unfortunately, many African countries have not been managed as well as the one depicted in the film. Corruption and fiscal instability, coupled with inconsistencies in taxation and mining policies, make operating on the continent challenging for foreign producers, to say the least. Three years ago, I argued that Africa could mine its way to prosperity if only it addressed the hindrances that keep explorers and producers away. I stand by those words today.

Consider Congo, which produces roughly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, an essential component in lithium-ion batteries. Lawmakers there recently voted to raise taxes and royalties on profits and metals produced. That includes cobalt, whose price has soared 180% in the past three years on red hot electric vehicle (EV) demand. The country’s state-owned mining company, Gécamines SA, is also pushing the government to renationalize the entire mining industry.

Admittedly, the fictional Wakanda appears to have a nationalized metals and mining sector. But because the country is so advanced and self-sustaining, it has no need for outside investment. That’s not the case with many real-life African nations, which are literally, in some cases, sitting on a gold mine.

Cobalt Supply Shortage Could Boost Prices Even More

But let’s focus on cobalt for a moment. Global demand for the brittle, bluish-white metal has skyrocketed in recent months, exceeding 100,000 metric tons for the first time last year, according to mining consultant CRU Group. Over the next 10 years, it’s projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.6%.

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About the Author

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer of US Global Investors.