Dressed in double denim, thick-rimmed black glasses and shiny leather boots, Mujinga Tshikuta Asamoah bears few signs of the hardship he endured as a child.
From as young as 14 years old, he went down narrow holes as deep as 25 metres, carried 50kg bags and washed ore to produce the cobalt essential to the batteries used in the world’s laptops, phones and electric cars.
“I was bound and obliged as I had no options,” Asamoah says, shuffling three mobile phones powered by the very material responsible for both the death of some of his closest friends and his escape from poverty.
Now 30, a teacher and interpreter, Asamoah says he is one of the lucky few in the surreal, almost otherworldly, reddish-brown landscapes of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s copper and cobalt capital Kolwezi, in the south of the country.
But his fresh start was not through his own toil. It was his aunt’s husband working nearby at global natural resource powerhouse Glencore’s vast Mutanda mine who paid for him to go to university and leave the mines behind.
Cobalt, the silver metal so abundant in the DRC that miners can dig it out with basic tools, is essential for the world’s transition to clean energy. Demand for the resource is projected to triple by 2035, mainly for electric vehicle batteries, according to the Cobalt Institute, an industry body.
Asamoah’s story encapsulates the uneasy coexistence of the two faces of the DRC’s cobalt industry: on one side, the industrial mines run by multinationals like Glencore that are sealed off by concrete walls and wire fences and, on the other, the informal mines with hellish, unsafe conditions that feed underground Chinese trading networks.
The practice is known as “artisanal” mining; a name that belies its rudimentary and hazardous nature. Yet this small-scale mining generates about 15 to 30 per cent of the DRC’s cobalt supply, which in turn produces about 70 per cent of global output.
“Demand growth for battery metals is intensifying,” says James Nicholson, head of social responsibility at Trafigura, one of the world’s largest commodity traders. “Large-scale mines are going to be under significant pressure to produce, so the mid-tier as well as small-scale and artisanal producers will increasingly be depended upon.”
If the world is to meet its need for cobalt — and do so in a sustainable and equitable way — then the artisanal mining sector will have to be cleaned up to meet international standards.
While artisanal mining extends far beyond the DRC, supporting the livelihoods of almost 1 in 20 people on the planet, and includes commodities such as copper, gold, tin and lithium, it was in 2016 that Amnesty International drew attention to child labour and inhumane working conditions in the country’s informal cobalt mining sector.
Since then, Washington and Brussels have become more serious about bolstering the security of raw material supply — and loosening China’s stranglehold on critical mineral supply chains. They are also introducing due diligence and human rights legislation in the global supply chain.
Down in the dusty tracks of Kamilombe, an artisanal mining site near Kolwezi, home to hundreds of precarious man-made holes and trading depots there is little sign of those changes.
A hundred or so miners start the morning brawling over a scant number of hard hats. No children appear to be present — although they can be seen washing ore and carrying soaked red sacks through a nearby stream. Extreme danger and exploitation remains: most miners wear nothing beyond sandals, jeans and T-shirts, some shafts sink 100 metres deep — three times the legal limit — and the prices paid by Chinese traders are unfair.
After witnessing Congolese people in Kamilombe going through the same ordeal he once did, Asamoah is decisive about what should happen next: “These mines should be formalised.”
The glacial pace of change is also seen at the end of the supply chain. The $7.7tn club of miners, car manufacturers and electronics makers — including Glencore, Volkswagen, Microsoft and Apple — who belong to the Responsible Minerals Initiative continue to rigidly exclude artisanally mined cobalt from what they consider “responsible” sources.
Some in the industry say this exclusion helps the companies protect their supply chains and indeed their reputations, but does little to improve conditions for those risking their lives in unregulated mines or bring development to one of the world’s poorest nations.
Governments and multinational corporations are under increasing pressure to do more to improve safety at informal mines and find a way to incorporate them into ethical supply chains. A chastening but unsuccessful attempt by families of children killed or injured while mining to sue Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla in 2019 has added further scrutiny.
In February, Microsoft called for “a coalition” to advance formalisation of artisanal mining, which would involve a collective effort to enforce standards such as eliminating deep tunnels, alcohol abuse and child labour.
But given the challenge ahead, some critics wonder why safeguarding artisanal mining is taking so long.
Driving through Tenke Fungurume, on track to be the world’s largest cobalt mine, a child can be seen carrying a sack of ore on their back in the rubble between a dirt road and a vast open pit mine cut out of the ground.
On top of huge man-made mountains of crushed ore, children and young men are sifting with their bare hands for rocks containing valuable metal.
These are not employees of CMOC, the Chinese operator that bought the mine from US rival Freeport-McMoran in 2016. They belong to the local community that has swollen from 30,000 to 400,000 people in 15 years. Some came looking for a well-paid job with CMOC, while others were lured by the 10 active giant open-pits that signal there is plenty of cobalt to be found nearby.
The collision of those two worlds poses reputational, legal and operational risks to miners and their customers. It also threatens to grant China, which has looser human-rights standards than western rivals, the upper hand in securing critical minerals, while keeping the populations of resource-rich nations hostage to kleptocrats and international criminal gangs.
Mining companies such as Glencore and CMOC, which churned out 43,800 and 20,300 tonnes of cobalt last year, respectively, insist that their products do not get mixed with artisanal supplies during transportation or at processing sites and smelters in the DRC, China or elsewhere.
Some experts dispute that the separation is so clear cut. Michael Posner, director of the Centre for Business and Human Rights at NYU’s Stern School of Business, says that “the idea that you can separate artisanal mining from industrial mining nicely and neatly is a fiction”.
The reality on the ground is that mining companies tolerate artisanal mining as long as it does not disrupt their operations but stop short of attempting to regulate it or improve safety as the practice is technically illegal.
One of the ways large miners have attempted to curb the pervasiveness of artisanal mining is to create alternative jobs by building schools, hospitals and infrastructure. “The ultimate solution is to convince the [artisanal] miners that there’s something better outside of the mine,” says a CMOC executive.
That pushes the onus on the government but leadership in the DRC is too weak for that to be an immediate path forward. Plus, the incentives to mine are high. Men can earn upwards of $400 a month digging for cobalt compared with $100 a month for a teacher.
Chloris, a 22-year-old digger at Kamilombe, reluctantly gave up his teacher training to earn more money in the mines in order to support seven family members. “I want to do something else. It doesn’t matter what,” he says.
In a local village near Mutanda, another of the country’s largest mines, its owner Glencore doubles take-home pay for teachers and pays hundreds of millions of dollars in tax payments to DRC authorities annually.
Anne-Marie Fleury, cobalt responsible sourcing director at Glencore, says that the complexity and scale of the challenge means that formalising artisanal mining would be helpful, but not sufficient to solve the problem.
“To address artisanal mining, a number of factors need to be considered, including root causes, livelihood development and improved co-ordination of support and development efforts,” she says.
How far companies like Glencore should go in formalising artisanal mining raises tough questions about the extent to which, and for how long, they should take on government responsibilities in a so-called failed state. The Swiss commodity trader’s role in the DRC is also complicated by the fact that it is under investigation by Dutch authorities for potential corruption in the country.
“If mining companies develop new projects in places where needs aren’t being met, then responsibility and pressures will fall on them,” says Rohitesh Dhawan, chief executive of the International Council of Mining and Metals, a global industry association. “But it’s not a healthy or sustainable model for mining companies to become shadow service providers and can create tension with other stakeholders including investors.”
The upshot is mining companies are more comfortable improving safety standards at artisanal mines the further away they are from their own pits and machinery.
Kamilombe is one such project. Led by the Fair Cobalt Alliance, an NGO funded by Tesla, Google, Glencore and CMOC, the pilot offers protective equipment and child labour remediation services.
Similar schemes have come and gone. Trafigura and UAE miner Chemaf ran a pilot project involving 5,000 miners at Mutoshi that used machines to create open pits and eliminate dangerous tunnels. The project, widely hailed as a success, ceased in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. While a blueprint may have been left, the legacy at the site has faded.
“We’ve been working bottom-up for a long time with the donor community but we’re not getting sustained results,” said Martin Lokanc, senior mining specialist at the World Bank. “A top-down approach is needed.”
Curbing Chinese interests
What needs to be done to formalise artisanal mining is clear: offer an alternative trading structure to break the dominance of an exploitative network of intermediaries.
This alternative, such as a national buyer, would pay vulnerable miners more in return for putting up fences and installing security guards to keep children out of sites as well as banning deep tunnels and providing protective equipment.
Four years ago, the DRC created Entreprise Générale du Cobalt to buy all cobalt supplies from informal mining sites, but action has been snail’s pace as evidenced by the vacant Musompo Trading Centre in Kolwezi.
Almost 100 pastel blue warehouses have been ready since early last year to take artisanal cobalt supplies for an entity such as EGC, which would then use lab equipment to measure the weight, purity and humidity of the ore, three properties on which diggers are often cheated.
Down Kamilombe’s litter-strewn warren of tracks, rows of Congolese workers stand outside a dozen corrugated shacks in coloured uniforms. Behind them in the shadows, Chinese traders linger, waiting to aggregate and launder ore alongside that produced from some large-scale mines.
Bruno, a 35-year-old grizzled miner, shrugs off the dangers at Kamilombe, calling his job “the best”. But like everyone there, he wants the current sales system to change. “The Chinese steal from us,” he shouts through the crowd.
Eric Kalala, the newly appointed boss of EGC, says it is “more than urgent” to roll out the agency’s action plan, but many doubt much progress will be made before the country’s general election expected in December.
EGC’s stalling start can be attributed to local political factions and powerful Chinese interests behind the co-operatives and trading networks.
That does not stop the DRC government from calling on the west to rethink its approach and make bigger commitments if it is serious about bringing lasting change and competing with China.
“When you guys are coming with a pilot project, it’s just a drop in the ocean,” says Paul Mabiola Yenga, adviser to the DRC Ministry of Mines.
“When the Chinese come and say ‘we are going to build’, this is a big investment. The Europeans come and say ‘we need to have good governance and then we will come’. The issue is we see the government but we don’t see the private companies.”
Between the DRC government, mining companies, their end customers and NGOs, there is constant finger pointing over who is responsible for the failure to reform and safeguard artisanal mining.
Some experts argue that companies talk a good game on responsible sourcing, but turn a blind eye to the knock-on effects of their policies. “There’s a way and not the will,” says Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights. “The peak of cynicism is to put in your contract, as all the car companies do, that we don’t source from artisanal mines.”
Many say pragmatism is sorely needed. The London Bullion Market Association, an industry body, has recognised that responsible sourcing standards for gold have marginalised smaller producers from international markets. Its chief executive, Ruth Crowell, says deeper engagement is needed from consumers and investors.
“The bigger challenge is people in the west not wanting to get into the detail of how you will make a difference to peoples’ lives by sourcing the metal, instead just wanting it to be issue-free,” she adds.
For the DRC’s cobalt, car manufacturers, electronics producers and mining firms’ efforts to improve artisanal mining and the communities involved are done at arm’s length through various platforms, which have been criticised as smokescreens. The Fair Cobalt Alliance — Tesla, Google and Glencore’s flagship initiative that supports Kamilombe — has a paltry $1.8mn of annual funding. Similarly, BMW, Volkswagen and others help fund Cobalt for Development.
Formalising artisanal mining may appear as irresolvable as sweatshops did for garment manufacturers in the 1990s, says Posner of NYU. But he adds that there are encouraging differences.
Back then, the White House convened Nike and other apparel giants to get them to start dealing with exploitation and establish standards that led to some improvement. Tackling sweatshops, Posner argues, is “relatively more complicated” than artisanal mining in one part of the DRC.
“If western governments start to say, ‘these are our expectations’ and we have supply chain laws to back it up, then that would certainly be better than today’s free-for-all,” he adds.
For men and women at Kamilombe like Françoise, who washes ore for $5 to $10 a day to support six children and three brothers, that change would make a world of difference. “I cannot simply stop this work today”, she says, “because this is all I have.”
Data visualisation by Chris Campbell