Lithium and the New Wave of Resource Nationalism

Joseph Dana
4 min readJan 19

Just as the supply chain crisis appears to be stabilizing, a new set of laws in southern Africa threatens one of the world’s essential commodities. Last month, Zimbabwe banned the export of raw lithium. The material is a vital part of batteries that power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Zimbabwe is home to the world’s sixth-largest known lithium reserves and has long been an important source for the Chinese market, given the country’s close trade connections. Will Zimbabwe’s decision usher in a new wave of resource nationalism as other countries move to protect their raw resources from foreign exploitation?

Probably not, but the events demonstrate how the global commodity market for everything from oil to semiconductors is changing. With new semiconductor manufacturing plants in the United States and the slow but steady de-dollarization of the international oil trade, the commodity trade is transforming quickly. Zimbabwe’s move to protect local industry highlights how developing countries could try to protect their resources.

Lithium prices have surged more than 1,100 percent to record highs over the past two years. Lithium’s value will continue to increase as electric vehicles replace traditional combustion engines. Bloomberg reports that half of all car sales could be electric vehicles by 2030, up from just 9 percent last year.

Under the new Zimbabwean law, any export of lithium ore (raw lithium) will require special permission demonstrating that the exporter has set up local manufacturing facilities. Foreign companies cannot sell ore but can export concentrates, the powder created from crushing rocks and processing the ore. Exporters that don’t process the ore locally will be required to show exceptional circumstances before moving the raw commodity out of the country. The high price of lithium has recently attracted a slew of miners targeting abandoned mines in search of rock that might have some lithium. The rock is then exported to other countries. The new laws are designed to stop this activity as well.

The rationale behind Zimbabwe’s decision reflects a new calculus in rising electric vehicle sales. Instead of supplying raw materials, the country wants to be a part of the manufacturing process. Zimbabwe’s move isn’t designed to roll back…

Joseph Dana