By June 2022, no mining company in Guinea had respected the current Government’s request to submit plans to set up an alumina refinery. That request is part of efforts by successive regimes to get Africa’s number one bauxite producer to channel its mineral wealth into economic development. While those plans are yet to materialize, the question of whether some of Africa’s resources are a curse or a blessing remains unanswered.

Leading bauxite-producing countries in Africa; the Republic of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ghana are losing billions of US dollars in revenue for exporting the majority of their bauxite unprocessed, our investigation confirms.

KPMG Global Mining Institute reports that Guinea alone produces about 94 percent of total bauxite in Africa and has the world’s largest reserve of 7.4 billion metric tons.

Bauxite Value Addition

Bauxite transportation. Photo:

Lee Bray who is a Mineral Commodity Specialist at the US Geological Survey office, explains how to get value out of bauxite.

“To get the best value of bauxite is in essence a three-step process. First is the mining of the bauxite. The bauxite is then sent to a refinery and washed because there is sometimes clay in it. In the refinery, the bauxite is put into a processing plant where it is pressurized and mixed with a product called caustic soda. In that process, alumina is extracted from the bauxite.

Bauxite -aluminum ore, showing pisolitic habit (201210-69)

The refinery sends the alumina to a smelter which finally produces aluminium. So there is the mining of the bauxite, the transformation of it into alumina at a refinery, and then a final transformation into aluminium at a smelter plant,” Bray explained.

Alumina Samples. Photo

“Aluminium is used in transportation (automobiles, airplanes, trucks, railcars, marine vessels, etc.), packaging (cans, foil, etc.), construction (windows, doors, siding, etc), consumer durables (appliances, cooking utensils, etc.), electrical transmission lines, machinery, and many other applications,’’ said Adisa Amanor-Wilks of the International Aluminum Institute.

Aluminum Sample. Photo:


Aluminium has the highest market value followed by alumina, with raw bauxite having the least value. In 2019 for instance, while the average price of a metric ton of aluminium stood at US$1,794 and alumina at US$500, that of bauxite was at US$32.

Our investigation reveals that Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ghana could have been earning multiples of billions of US dollars if they had transformed their bauxite into alumina and further into aluminium.

Our findings are based on analysis of data from the British and US Geological Survey, Forbes, Ghana Chamber of Mines, and official government statistics from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ghana on bauxite production, earnings, and average prices on the world market from 2009 to 2019.

Our calculations are also based on the US Geological Survey’s estimate that four tons of bauxite are required for the production of a ton of alumina while two tons of alumina are required for one ton of aluminium. Experts said the quantum needed depends on the grade of the bauxite ore.


We found out through data we analysed from earlier mentioned sources, that these countries are getting only a paltry amount from their bauxite production.

For instance, in 2019, Guinea reported total production of 82 million metric tons of bauxite. From this production, the country is estimated to have earned about US$2.6 billion from selling only unprocessed bauxite while it would have earned about US$10 billion if it had transformed its bauxite into alumina and at least, about US$18 billion for aluminium.

Similarly, within the same year, Sierra Leone is estimated to have earned US$62.8 million from unprocessed bauxite while it would have earned US$245 million for alumina and a whopping US$440 million for aluminium.

Ghana reported US$36 million in revenue from unprocessed bauxite for 2019 yet it could have earned US$139.6 million from alumina and US$250 million from aluminium.

The same trend of losses by these three leading bauxite-producing countries in Africa was observed in an analysis of earlier years. As these countries struggle with developmental needs, these huge revenue losses could have been channeled into the provision of basic infrastructures such as hospitals, schools, roads, and potable water systems to serve its inhabitants.

Our investigation showed that the losses go beyond the direct revenue that should be accruing to the government and that adding value to bauxite has a ripple effect on a country’s economy.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ghana Chamber of Mines, Mr. Sulemanu Koney, explained that value-addition to bauxite is interlinked to different sectors of the economy.

“We are also talking about skills transfer. Because of the technology, skills and competencies involved most of these companies would be transnational and would transfer the same skills to other sectors of the economy. You also have local content and local participation in terms of employment,” he said.

Solomon Kusi. Ghanian Environmental Activist. Photo Ghanaweb

“Bauxite and aluminium production requires raw material which will go into the value addition. One of the key inputs of bauxite value addition into alumina is caustic soda. Naturally, when you think of inputs you think of importing or producing them if you have the capabilities. I will cite the example of caustic soda because within West Africa, Ghana and Senegal are potential producers.

One other byproduct of caustic soda production is chlorine which is a major input in major industries. Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast all need chlorine to produce plastics. If Nigeria can produce choline or caustic soda and supply, the opportunities will be immense and would cut across different countries. So, by adding value to bauxite, other industries benefit,” Koney added.

Value addition also has a direct impact at the local level, the very communities in which the resources are mined, says Solomon Kusi-Ampofo, the Natural Resource Governance Coordinator of the Ghanaian-based socio-environmental NGO, Friends of the Nation.

“The setting up of a refinery would first give them employment opportunities, improve infrastructure and boost the local economy. Workers living in these mining communities would need accommodation and so there would be the building of houses. It would trigger investment. The first employment opportunity is when the plant is being constructed. When it starts operation there will be more jobs,” Kusi-Ampofo suggested.

“An average alumina refinery that produces one or two million metric tons a year, can have 500 employees. An Aluminum smelter plant that is producing around 200-250 tons per year in the USA provides around 40,000 jobs. When it becomes more labor-intensive in other manufacturing industries that is when you get a lot more jobs. Some of these industries have up to 10,000 workers,” explained Lee Bray.

Refineries & Smelters

In the small town of Friguia in the Republic of Guinea, lies Africa’s only bauxite refinery which transforms bauxite into alumina. The refinery, owned by the Russian firm Rusal, has the capacity to produce only 600,000 tons of alumina a year according to company records. The same records indicate that only 360,000 metric tons of alumina were actually produced in 2019, below the company’s capacity.

Thermal plant in Rusal owned Friguia Refinery in the Republic of Guinea. Photo:

This capacity represents an insignificant fraction of Guinea’s bauxite production considering the fact that in that same year, Guinea’s bauxite production stood at 82 million metric tons. Consequently, almost all of the country’s bauxite is exported in its raw form.

Our investigation also revealed that there were some smelting plants dotted across the continent which transformed alumina into aluminium. “There are not very many. Aluminium smelters are found in South Africa, Egypt, Mozambique, and Cameroon. Ghana used to have one that produces 40,000 tons of aluminum a year. That’s very small. One was built in Nigeria,” explained Lee Bray.

Mozal Aluminium Plant Mozambique : Photo: South 32

According to statistics from Mozal Aluminium, Mozambique, and Hillside Aluminium, South Africa all owned by South 32, an Australian company, they are capable of producing 500,000-700,000 metric tons of aluminium per annum whereas a medium size smelter is expected to produce some one million to two million ton, according to Lee Bray.

It emerged from South32 that its companies in Mozambique and South Africa import alumina from Australia that it uses for the production of aluminium.

Critical Observations

Our investigation observed that none of the bauxite-producing countries in Africa owns both the refinery and the smelter plant. These countries either sell the raw bauxite, transform it into alumina and sell alumina, or have to import the alumina to smelt into aluminium. None of the countries however imports raw or unprocessed bauxite. In either case, there was a problem of very limited production of alumina and aluminium.

*This is the first part of an investigation into Africa’s bauxite. Read the second segment here. The cross-border investigation was conducted by Solomon Amabo and Marlvin James Dadzie.

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