China beats Tesla to Nigeria’s lithium riches

China already controls 60% of the world’s lithium processing. Now it’s exploring new frontiers to expand its dominance.


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Kaduna, a state in northwestern Nigeria, has selected China’s Ming Xin Mineral Separation Nig Ltd. (MXMS) to build the country’s first lithium-processing plant, with a plan to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

On January 13, the Kaduna Investment Promotion Agency tweeted pictures of its leadership team reviewing the plant’s construction. According to Kaduna State’s mining company, the plant is being built on 9.3 hectares of land. Khalil Nur Khalil, the executive secretary of the state’s investment promotion agency, told Rest of World that the plant is a “game changer,” which he believes will lay the foundation for Nigeria’s ambitions to build “battery factories” and produce “EVs in Kaduna.”

This comes more than five months after the Nigerian government claimed it had rejected Tesla’s proposal to purchase raw lithium from the country.

Ayodeji Adeyemi, special assistant to the minister of mines and steel development, told Rest of World that Tesla’s proposal was rejected because it did not align with the country’s new mining policies.

“Our new mining policy demands that you add some value to raw mineral ores, including lithium, before you export to create jobs and build industries,” Adeyemi said. “They don’t have to turn ores into finished goods. We are only asking them to add some value before exporting.”

In January, Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, said he sees the company’s biggest competition coming from China. That same month, Tesla even slashed the prices of its cars in China for the second time since September last year.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China already controls 60% of the world’s lithium processing and is exploring new frontiers, like Nigeria, to expand its dominance. Kaduna is one of several Nigerian states with lithium deposits. At least seven other states in the country are confirmed to have the mineral — essential in the manufacturing of EV batteries — in commercial quantities.

The Nigerian government has relied significantly on funding from China for several landmark projects, including the Abuja Light Rail project, planned terminal expansions at four major airports, and the National Public Security Communications System project. According to Nigeria’s debt management office, Chinese loans represented 3.94% of the country’s total public debt as of March 2020. 

Despite increasing Chinese interest in infrastructure financing and construction, the U.S. is still one of Nigeria’s top five sources of imported capital. In 2021, Nigeria received over $2.2 billion from the U.K., over $677 million from the U.S., and $10 million from China, official records from the National Bureau of Statistics show.

Analysis from the IEA shows that to reach net zero emissions by 2050, about 2 billion EVs and hybrids need to be produced and used. However, global lithium reserves can only make about 2.5 billion EVs. This means that lithium will continue to be a valued, in-demand mineral, given that it has alternative uses apart from making EV batteries. It is used to make batteries for laptops, phones, and digital cameras and is also essential in the manufacturing of planes and trains.

“Nigeria can take advantage of this market by leveraging the domestic value-added process to the mineral,” Oghosa Erhahon, a lawyer and energy transition analyst, told Rest of World. “For example, manufacturing batteries for exports. It’s one thing to limit foreign activities, but not building sustainable infrastructure for lithium mining is not favorable, especially with the national plans to diversify exports.” 

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