Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema said a US-backed project to connect Zambia’s copper mines to an Angolan port offers the nation a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. 

The project will link mining operations owned by companies including Barrick Gold Corp. and First Quantum Minerals Ltd. to the Atlantic Ocean port of Lobito by building new track in Zambia and connecting it to an existing railway in Angola. The US is supporting the refurbishment of the Angolan line and has approved a $250 million loan for the whole project, the International Development Finance Corp. said in a statement on Thursday.

The Lobito corridor is central to the Biden administration’s plans to secure access to crucial metals for the energy transition in Zambia and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, while countering China’s influence in the region. The ambitious plan spans three countries, and has support from the European Union and the Group of Seven wealthy nations.

“This is a generational opportunity — once in a lifetime — to do something that is significant to our country, countries economies, to our people in terms of opportunity, businesses,” Hichilema said in an interview outside the capital, Lusaka, on Thursday. “It’s everything.”

The project aims to cut transit times — for supplies to mines and their metals to port — by weeks. Trial shipments from Congo to Lobito have taken about a week since they started in December, compared with more than a month for mining companies that truck their metals to the South African port of Durban. 

Hichilema spoke on the sidelines of an investment forum the US organized in Zambia to attract private investors for the Lobito project that will cost more than $2 billion.

The day before, China announced its own $1 billion-plus plan to revitalize a railway connecting Zambia’s copper heartland to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. Zambia should conclude that deal by September, Hichilema said. The plan is for a state-owned Chinese company to operate that line, known as Tazara, on a commercial basis.