Aluminum in Africa

Terri Hathaway
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A case study for Earthlife Africa eThekwini and Friends of the Earth

While the aluminum industry’s interest in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing tremendously, the sector’s contributions to Africa’s economic and human development to date remain dubious. Aluminum is the world’s second most used metal, and the aluminum industry is made up of some of the world’s most powerful companies. These companies regularly secure advantageous energy and infrastructure deals for their aluminum production, but with questionable economic benefit or development for the countries where they operate. The government-level support which these companies receive comes at the cost of fewer resources applied to the chronic under-development of human needs. In several countries the aluminum companies are by far the largest consumers of electricity– often using great quantities of electricity in places where a large majority of the population has no access to modern energy services.

Aluminum producers use more electricity than any other industry. Bauxite is converted into primary aluminum in three stages: first, bauxite ore is mined, the bauxite is then refined into alumina (aluminum oxide), and finally the alumina is smelted into primary aluminum. This process (particularly the smelting of alumina into aluminum) is the world’s most energy-intensive industrial process. About half of all electricity consumed by the aluminum industry comes from hydropower dams, a percentage that is expected to increase. Energy inputs account for up to half the cost of aluminum production, leading to migration of aluminum processing plants in recent years from the traditional industrial centers like the United States and Europe to developing countries where companies find that cheaper electricity, fewer regulations and lower-paid workers make building new production facilities cost-effective.

Today less than one out of every four sub-Saharan Africans has access to electricity. In rural areas, where the vast majority of the population lives, the rate of access plummets to only one in every ten. That equals 500 million sub-Saharan Africans today, and is expected to grow to 650 million by 2030.  Yet sub-Saharan African governments are making electricity available to aluminum companies at some of the lowest costs in the world.