The African continent is known for its wealth of different minerals, mostly its abundance of oil, gold and diamonds. However, Africa is one of the world’s most important sources of copper and has some of the most impressive copper belts. In fact, Africa is among the top 10 copper producing regions in the world. Copper production is dominated mainly by Zambia, South Africa and the Katanga province in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo. Many other African nations contribute to total copper production.
The price of copper, and other commodities, has reached a record high in recent years and months. Not surprisingly, thieves have turned their criminal efforts to the theft of copper-laden trucks and copper in general. Thieves have even been involved in the malfunctioning of the state-owned railroads in Africa, stealing copper cables from the railway network to sell the valuable metal.
Copper trucks and the electrical installation of trains in Africa have not been the only companies affected by copper theft. There have also been a number of utility outages due to copper cable theft in previous years. Although copper is a common theft, vandalism of other metals such as aluminum conductors installed on transmission lines and steel from support towers has been reported over the past few years.
Glencore, one of the world’s largest copper producers, owns two large-scale copper and cobalt mines in the country: Katanga and Mutanda, which produce copper cathodes and cobalt hydroxide.
Between January and May of this year, at least 66 copper trucks belonging to merchant miners, including Glencore, Trafigura and Traxys, have been shrewdly robbed. The robberies were carried out while the trucks, loaded with copper, were on their way to different ports.
According to sources who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the problem, kidnappings have increased in recent months in Botswana, The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia due to rising copper prices. At least 60% of the kidnappings have occurred in South Africa.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s leading copper producer and the fourth largest copper producer globally. In 2019, the DRC’s copper mine production amounted to 1.3 million metric tons. Zambia, meanwhile, is Africa’s second largest copper producer and accounts for 70% of the continent’s total copper production.
Copper mined in Zambia and Congo accounts for about 10% of global supplies, estimated at 24 million tons, and is transported to ports in southern Africa. Occasionally, trucks loaded with copper en route to their destination are intercepted and robbed by organized crime gangs to re-sell the copper locally or transport it for sale in neighbouring countries.
In order to re-sell the stolen copper, the criminals melt the copper to remove the serial numbers and ownership marks. Eventually the stolen goods arrive in China or other countries where the high demand for copper has reached an all-time high of over $10,700 per ton in May. As manufacturing activity accelerated and economies opened up after COVID-19, global demand picked up, helping to drive copper prices higher by the ton.
As noted by Reuters, with an average truck carrying between 32 and 34 tons of copper cathodes, the thefts would amount to approximately $21 million worth of copper at current prices. It also added that in June and July, more trucks have been stolen. The source did not provide exact figures for the thefts in those months, however, one truck that was robbed on July 9 was reported to be worth $470,000.
Currently around $9,700, copper prices and metals used mostly in the energy and construction industries have risen more than 50% in the last 12 months.