The clean energy revolution hinges on the Democratic Republic of Congo — where conflict, corruption, and child labor are rife
By Nima Elbagir, Dominique van Heerden, and Eliza Mackintosh
Christian has been working with a group of men for the last 24 hours, mining for cobalt in shifts. The diggers, known as “creuseurs,” descend 65 feet underground into a narrow, makeshift tunnel equipped with nothing but headlamps and their bare hands.
The mineral they’re pulling out of the ground is an essential component in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which power mobile phones and laptops as well as electric vehicles and home batteries.
The hunt for cobalt has triggered a modern-day gold rush in Kolwezi, the capital of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Locals have turned residential neighborhoods like this one into so-called artisanal mines — digging up their kitchen floors and burrowing into back yards in search of the mineral.
Cobalt has quadrupled in price in the last two years, driven in part by the global electric vehicle boom.
Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo, which has been mired in conflict for decades, and about a fifth of that is mined by hand.
But with children often working alongside adults in artisanal mines it poses an ethical dilemma for multinationals.
Apple stopped sourcing from artisanal mines last year in light of these concerns, opting to pay more for cobalt from regulated industrial mines, which have more visibility over their supply chain. They’re now reportedly in talks to buy cobalt directly from Congo miners — Apple wouldn’t comment on these reports to CNN.
All of this comes as Congo is rushing to clean up its image. The Lualaba provincial government has partnered with one of the largest suppliers of artisanal cobalt — China’s Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) — to create the country’s first model cobalt mining cooperative.
Entrance and access to the mine, opened three months ago in Kasulo (a district of Kolwezi), is controlled by security guards and the minerals extracted there are certified by the government — now seven years into a five-year term. Governor of Lualaba Province Richard Muyej told CNN that, through reforms like this, the government hopes to eliminate child labor from the supply chain.
The facility is supposed to set a new standard for ethical mining, but in a country where natural resources have long been entwined with war and corruption, the reality is much murkier. CDM was named in a 2016 Amnesty International and Afrewatch report as buying cobalt mined by children.
This is what Christian and many others are mining for — dark stones with a slightly blue pigment.
After the cobalt is mined, it has to be washed, sorted, and crushed. It’s long, back-breaking work. And it’s hazardous — chronic exposure to cobalt particles can cause respiratory disease and skin issues.
At Lake Malo, a woman who only gave her surname Tembu, has been toiling away in knee-high water for almost 12 hours to grind 22 pounds of cobalt ore down to a gravel-like consistency, worth about $7.
Amnesty International researchers visited the same lake in 2015, and reported seeing about 100 people — many of them children — washing and sorting ore containing cobalt and copper.
Before we arrived, local mining officials cleared a group of young children from the lake. We could see them clambering up a hillside, bags of cobalt in hand.
We went to another nearby washing place — Musonoie River — to see whether officials would block us from observing child labor there too.
We arrived in time to see a handful of remaining boys sorting through stones. One child was struck by an official for being captured on camera, clutching a heavy sack of cobalt.
From the banks of the river, those same sacks of cobalt are loaded into vehicles, onto bicycles, or carried over shoulders to market to be sold.
At Kapata Market, in the outskirts of Kolwezi, the cobalt is bought by brokers at trading houses — many of them Chinese-owned. The going rates for cobalt and copper are posted on handwritten posters.
The traders test each haul with an XRF analyzer, a radar gun-like device that measures mineral content, before buying. None of them ask who mined the cobalt, which they will sell to bigger companies to refine and export.
Multiple whistleblowers told CNN that CDM regularly purchases cobalt from Kapata Market, despite being banned by the government from doing so. But CDM says it stopped buying from public markets in 2017 in an effort to eliminate child-mined cobalt from its supplies. CDM told CNN it would investigate the claims and plans to release a supply chain audit in the coming weeks.
While at the market, government mining officials once more tried to stop us from filming. The same mining ministry officials tasked with enforcing an ethical supply chain, who had given CNN permission to film, attempted to block our investigation at every step. The Lualaba governor said that this was a misunderstanding.
Governor Muyej says companies using cobalt from Congo need to work more closely with the government.
“We must work together to make the issue of traceability transparent and to make the sites safe and regularized,” Muyej said. He added that companies could do much more for the local community by investing in education.
The “cobalt rush” has continued to fuel fears of human rights violations and child labor in Congo. And the race to secure supplies has pitted some of the world’s biggest corporations against Chinese firms jostling to control the market.
CNN asked Apple, Microsoft, General Motors, Tesla, Samsung, BMW, Daimler, Renault, Chrysler, and Volkswagen to reveal their suppliers, per OECD guidelines — Amnesty’s report had raised concerns over contamination in their supply chains. While all of the companies have a zero tolerance policy for the use of child labour, many, including Daimler, Tesla, and Chrysler, say they are unable to fully map their supply chain due to its “complex nature.”
Only Renault, Apple, and BMW would reveal their suppliers to CNN. CDM's parent company Huayou is still among Renault’s suppliers. Both Apple and BMW buy from Congo, but say they no longer source from Huayou.
Like Apple, BMW is now considering buying from local miners too. It’s a sign that producing an ethical electric car or smartphone may mean cutting out an opaque supply chain and going direct to the person digging it out of the ground.