We discuss how Africa can use its graphite reserves to establish a thriving manufacturing industry to replace imports.
Graphite is an essential mineral, with extensive reserves located on the African continent. By tapping into its reserves, Africa has an incredible opportunity at hand to breathe new life into a defunct pencil-making industry, which could utilize graphite as a raw material. Challenges like inadequate infrastructure and limited technological expertise have hindered the continent from setting itself up as a major player in the global pencil manufacturing industry.
It is important to address the existing issues in establishing such an industry, where there is huge potential for economic diversification and job creation. Vision in this bold but achievable pursuit is crucial, and quite literally, Africa must take graphite from the mine to paper.
In a 2021 published geological survey by Clive Mitchell and Elmear Deady, Africa is reported as possessing significant reserves of graphite that can contribute to increasing global demand, while also boosting economic growth. Countries like Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, and Madagascar have been identified as having large quantities of graphite.
Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, and Guinea are among the few African countries holding smaller quantities of graphite. Nevertheless, considering how helpful mineral graphite is, it remains a prudent strategy to exploit even these seemingly more minor reserves.
Mozambique and Madagascar were among the top 2022 exporters of natural graphite (HS-2504), ranking 2nd and 3rd with $58,391,000 and $50,793,000 export value respectively. It would seem feasible to put up a pencil manufacturing factory in such countries. Disappointingly, upon research, there is no existence of any thriving pencil manufacturing factory in either of the two top-ranked African countries.
During the inaugural business forum of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held in Mozambique in June 2021, Carlos Mesquita, the country’s Minister of Industry and Trade, voiced apprehensions regarding the absence of value addition to Mozambique's exported graphite. Additionally, he highlighted the notable absence of a pencil-making factory in a nation possessing extensive graphite reserves.
The inability of Africa to transition past the stage of raw material extraction into subsequent steps, like value addition in exporting finished products and establishment of manufacturing industries is very concerning. There seem to be additional factors at play beyond the usual constraints of inadequate funds and limited expertise obstructing anticipated industrialization.
Ghana, for instance, ranks low in global graphite exports. However, it did possess a pencil-making factory, established in Kumasi by the country’s first president, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. The now-defunct factory once produced pencils, minimizing reliance on imported ones. Thousands of jobs were also said to have been created for residents in the area.
It is uncertain if Ghana was at the time sourcing its graphite to operate the factory or rather relying on imports. However, the establishment of the factory was a positive stride forward. There is no other known pencil-making factory in Ghana as of today, and the country relies heavily on imports for basic and daily-use items. In the year 2021, the documented import value for pencils and crayons into the country totalled $4.8 million.
In 2016, there were reports that Nigeria was looking to establish the first pencil-manufacturing plant in West Africa, with the hopes of creating a minimum of 400,000 jobs. Ogbonnaya Onu, who was the Minister of Science and Technology at the time, and the ministry’s longest-serving minister before resigning last year, announced that pencil production would commence in 2018. The Akwa Ibom State 2017 impressively went ahead to commission the country's first pencil factory operating in tandem with a toothpick manufacturing section, under the name Akees Toothpick and Pencil Factory.
According to a 2020 report by Nigeria’s BusinessDay, the factory relocated, and production was yet to resume. In this same report, worries over low patronage of the locally made products were expressed. It is possible that retailers still prefer to sell imported pencils, an indictment of the products’ quality, a lack of price competitiveness, or both.
The Enugu State’s Projects Development Institute (PRODA) was also set to commence pencil production in 2019 under the initiative known as the PRODA School Pencil Project, with an estimated pencil production value of a minimum of 15 million pencils per annum. Just last year, a former chairman of PRODA, Daniel Onjeh, had called on former Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, to probe the school pencil project, citing non-commencement of the project a year later.
As of 2023, it cannot be said with absolute certainty that there are fully operational pencil-manufacturing factories in Africa. Graphite is in demand for various industrial applications, and as it stands, the continent can become a major producer and contributor to the global supply chain. With varying amounts of minerals scattered across the continent, it is a smart move for countries to tap into this resource and reap the benefits.
Aside from the viable option of establishing pencil-making factories, one other key industrial application is the use of graphite in electric vehicles (EVs) as a battery component, particularly serving as a dominant part of the anode material. China currently dominates in the global supply of graphite, but looking ahead, Africa could potentially experience the impact of the EV surge as demand for graphite increases, positioning the continent in a favourable position.
It may well be the lack of good governance, misplaced priorities, and an unfortunate lack of foresight that have placed Africa in its present situation, positioned in the backseat, watching on as its global counterparts thrive in the domain of mineral extraction. This industrial domain needs attention, and it starts with us, the African populace, and our collective mindset.
Ogo15 days ago