Morocco capitalises on its vast phosphate reserves

Phosphates will be vital for global food security, and Morocco, which straddles key maritime trade routes, is home to three-quarters of the world's supply

Morocco's phosphate resources are a key ingredient in the fertilisers that can help increase food production around the world.
Andrei Cojocaru
Morocco's phosphate resources are a key ingredient in the fertilisers that can help increase food production around the world.

Morocco capitalises on its vast phosphate reserves

As an inorganic chemical compound, phosphate does not set the pulse racing under a microscope. Scientifically understood, it is neither new nor rare. Yet it helps feed the world, so it is important. And Morocco has most of the world’s supply.

Indeed, its mineral wealth—coupled with the country’s strategic location where key maritime routes meet—gives Morocco geopolitical weight.

For centuries, global powers have scrambled and fought for natural resources, many of which are used in key industries. They then scrambled and fought for secure routes to get them to market, ideally without having to fight the threat of piracy.

The global south, including the Middle East and North Africa, is home to many of these precious resources and prized routes. The region is exceptionally rich in metals and minerals used in agriculture and industry, whether on land or in the seabed.

For Morocco, phosphate is a trump card—it holds 75% of the world’s reserves. Shipping that phosphate out is easy, too, with ports astride both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, an essential artery for global trade linking West and East, notably China and Europe.

After Yemen’s Houthi rebels made the Suez Canal too risky for commercial ships, the longer round-Africa alternative has boosted Morocco’s ports.

Morocco's phosphate is a trump cardit holds 75% of the world's supply and can easily ship it out through the Atlantic or the Mediterranean.

Notably, the Tanger Med Port near the Strait of Gibraltar is a key node. It is the largest port in Africa and the Mediterranean, handling nine million containers annually.

Even before the diversions, it ranked fourth globally for operational efficiency according to the 2022 Container Port Performance Index from the World Bank and Standard & Poor's Global Market Intelligence.

Maximising benefit

Rabat wants to make the most of its opportunities, with strong ambitions to harness its natural resources and strategic location to boost its manufacturing sector.

Morocco is already globally important in automobile production, including in the manufacture of parts used in electric and hybrid vehicles (EVs), such as their all-important batteries.

Read more: Morocco makes a success of its drive into the automotive industry

The car industry has become its biggest sector, at around $2.5bn, followed closely by phosphate and fertiliser exports totalling $2bn.

The EV industry is set to expand, and there are hopes that total investment could reach £30bn in the coming years from companies based in the United States, China, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India.

Morocco's energy minister, Leila Benali, said the country ranked 17th among mineral-rich countries in 2022, "particularly for silver, cobalt, nickel, lithium, barite, and copper, which are essential for manufacturing batteries used in electric and hybrid cars".  

These metals contribute significantly to the ability of Moroccan industry to add value in its exports, and has changed the composition of its economy, diversifying it away from a reliance of agriculture and tourism.

Women tend to a flock of sheep near a phosphate mine in Morocco.

There is also growing interest in the mineral deposits in the Mount Tropic area along the southern Atlantic coasts within Morocco's maritime economic zone.

Under the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it extends up to 350 nautical miles, although there are ongoing discussions over the demarcation of maritime borders with Spain's Canary Islands off Morocco's coast.

Reports indicate the presence of undersea deposits of gold, silver, cobalt, and other rare and precious metals, which have yet to be tapped.

Such metals and minerals are used to produce items like ships, satellites, drones, precision medical devices, and military equipment.

A useful mineral

Phosphate rock resources occur principally as sedimentary marine phosphorites. The largest sedimentary deposits are found in northern Africa, the Middle East, China, and the United States.

Phosphate was first discovered in Morocco during World War I in the central province of Khouribga. It was later found in the west and south of the country.

Phosphates have applications in diverse industries, from agriculture to renewable energy. Moroccan phosphate deposits also contain uranium, which is used for nuclear power generation.

Phosphates can also be turned into phosphoric acid, used in food, detergents, personal hygiene products, and construction, but most of Morocco's phosphates are used to make nitrogen fertilisers or phosphoric acid.

Unprocessed phosphates are at OCP's Marka plant near Laayoune, Western Sahara.

Other elements can be extracted as by-products, and interest in using phosphate-based lithium to manufacture lithium-ion batteries is growing.

At the recent Russia-Africa Summit in Moscow, Russia proposed several initiatives to Morocco, including a free-trade zone and the construction of a nuclear-powered seawater desalination plant in the southern part of the country.

Read more: A new scramble for Africa is underway and Russia is vying for influence

Another of the Kremlin's proposals was the use of innovative techniques for extracting radioactive metals from Morocco's phosphates.

So far, Rabat has stood back, cautious not to upset the United States by leaning toward Moscow, particularly during its war in Ukraine.

Morocco is prioritising the implementation of seawater desalination projects using renewable energy, estimated to cost $15bn by 2027. Plans for nuclear energy initiatives are currently on hold.

Alongside its desalination efforts, Morocco aims to produce green hydrogen, carbon-free electricity, and green ammonia, with a million tonnes of the latter by 2027.

US companies have shown keen interest in these projects, combining desalination with green energy in the face of climate change impacts.

With food security at the top of most global agendas, phosphates are set to play an ever more important role, as climate impacts worsen. 

Phosphate diplomacy

With food security at the top of most global agendas, phosphates are set to play an ever more important role as climate impacts worsen.

Growing demand has led to a kind of 'phosphate diplomacy' as both countries and companies vie to establish supply lines.

Mostafa Terrab, chief executive of Morocco's state-owned miner and fertiliser maker OCP Group, says the company has "invested in meeting global fertiliser demands".

This has meant OCP "expanding our presence across Africa and Europe, including our recent acquisition of a 50% stake in the Spanish company GlobalFeed."

To enhance agricultural productivity, Morocco has allocated $8bn to phosphate fertiliser production units in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and other East African nations, where there are around 400 million mouths to feed.

Morocco already exports 4 million tonnes of fertiliser to sub-Saharan Africa at reduced prices, helping 44 million farmers in 35 countries.

This initiative was launched at the instigation of King Mohammed VI to advance global food security and promote resilience to climate change in agriculture.

Morocco has intensified its investments in solar and wind energy.

"The fertiliser sector has emerged as a key driver in advancing the kingdom's leadership on the global stage, particularly in the realm of food security," said Terrab.

The $15tn opportunity

OCP invested $10 billion in the production of agricultural fertilisers, contributing significantly to Morocco's production of 12 million tonnes last year.

The global phosphate market was valued at approximately $79bn by the end of 2023, according to RationalStat.

Morocco's estimated reserves are 50 billion tonnes, meaning they could be worth up to $15tn.

Yet according to the US government's Geological Survey, using the latest available figures, Morocco significantly trailed China in phosphate production despite having by far the world's biggest reserves.

For 2021, China mined 85 million tonnes, compared to Morocco's 38 million tonnes. The US was third with 21 million tonnes, while Russia mined 13 million tonnes.

The US journal Science has predicted that Moroccan phosphates would help the country become wealthier by 2050, as it plays a bigger role in meeting global food production needs.

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