DRC’s artisan cobalt miners set to join mainstream

Child cobalt minersA company established just last month in the Democrat Republic of Congo could be the fourth largest cobalt producer in the world by the end of the year. In the process, it could help raise thousands of Congolese out of the poverty that a combination of colonialism, war and corruption has inflicted upon them. In the long term, it could also help avert such tragedies as that which occurred in June 2019 when part of an open-pit copper and cobalt mine owned by Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore’s Katanga Mining subsidiary collapsed, killing 43 people. Blame for the disaster was placed firmly on the legion of so-called ‘artisanal miners’ who extract the silvery-blue cobalt by hand almost side by side with Katanga’s heavy plant machinery, and whose unregulated operations caused several old terraces to cave in. The provincial authorities’ immediate reaction was to send in the army onto the site, as well as to China Moly’s giant copper and cobalt mine 90km to the east to remove up to 10,000 of these artisanal miners who were officially trespassing.

They were soon back, because cobalt is big business in the DRC and artisanal mining the sole direct or indirect source of income for approximately one million Congolese. Thanks to its energy density, cobalt has become integral to the manufacture of the lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) and highly prized by producers of smartphones, tablets and laptop manufacturers as well. Today, 60% of the silvery blue metal is produced by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and around 15% by the unregulated artisanal mining sector where child labour is commonplace and life is cheap, as the 2019 tragedy so graphically illustrated.

Now, the private-sector Trafigura global trading house and state-owned Gecamines have joined forces to channel the artisanal miners’ efforts into the mainstream economy. The initiative predates the Glencore mine disaster (which was by no means an isolated event) and stems from a change in the mining code that was introduced a year earlier. In 2019, Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC) was established with a monopoly in the country over the sourcing of cobalt from artisanal mining operations and a mandate to process it for export and to regulate the sector.

At the end of March, Gecamines and Trafigura signed an agreement under the terms of which Trafigura will fund the creation of strictly controlled artisanal mining zones, the installation of ore purchasing stations and costs related to the transparent and traceable delivery of cobalt hydroxide to Trafigura on an export cleared basis. Under the supply terms, EGC will ensure that the ore marketed by Trafigura complies with the relevant OECD due diligence guidelines.

Jean-Dominique Takis Kumbo MD GEC“For our country to benefit from the intrinsic value of cobalt, currently boosted by the development of carbon-free energies, it was essential that measures be taken to support the formalization of this industry,” says EGC managing directorJean-Dominique Takis Kumbo. “By cleaning up this sector, which has been subject to recurring illegality and fraud for several years, and of which our artisanal miners are the first victims, society stands to benefit as a whole.”