As tensions rise between the United States and China over the control of Congo’s cobalt market, there is increasing pressure to create a human-centered solution for Congo’s artisanal cobalt miners. Microsoft’s recent visit to the Mutoshi artisanal mining site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) highlighted the critical and complicated nature of this challenge. The social and economic costs of artisanal cobalt mining are high, and amidst the current conflict, the West must grapple with the ethical dilemma of sourcing cobalt from a place where dangerous conditions, including the use of child miners and the exclusion of women, have become the norm.
Microsoft is calling for a “coalition” with government, industrial producers, battery makers and major brands to create a sustainable and ethical industry in the region. While Apple has attempted to move away from cobalt sourcing by increasing the percentage of their cobalt shipments coming from recycling and other new technologies, the vast majority of the electric vehicle (EV) market still relies heavily on Congo’s cobalt, with global usage expected to grow at a rate of 13% per year in the next five years.
China currently holds the monopoly on processing capacity within the cobalt market, and their control of the supply chain is a major source of concern to the United States and Europe. Low prices, falling by 24% in 2021, have made it difficult for Western production to drastically improve. However, with the Implementation of the US – Congo MOU, an initiative exploring open and transparent investments to create sustainable value-added industry in the region, there is hope for a more socially and economically responsible operations in Congo.
Adding to the complexities of the challenges, is Siddarth Kara’s book, Cobalt Red, which seeks to illustrate the horrors of informal cobalt mining and the inextricable ties of artisanal mining within the greater supply chain. An independent report reflects the same challenges of Mutoshi’s re-emergence to a less formalized sector, including a stark increase in miners, the return of child workers and a degradation in safety protocols of miners.
The only way to address these ethical challenges is a collective effort between government, industry, and major brands to formalise the sector and buy all of its output responsibly. Without a practical solution to tackle cobalt usage within the global industrial supply chain, it becomes all the more difficult to reduce the unfortunate costs of artisanal mining in the Congo.
Microsoft is an American multinational technology company based in Redmond, Washington, with operations in over 100 countries. It is one of the largest companies in the world and is one of the leading tech companies in the world. Microsoft is well known for products such as Windows, Office, Outlook, and its Xbox gaming console. Michele Burlington is Microsoft’s Chief of Staff and is responsible for overseeing the company’s tech and corporate responsibility initiatives, including the company’s recent visit to the Mutoshi artisanal mining site. Siddarth Kara is an investigative journalist, author and human rights activist whose book, Cobalt Red, seeks to illustrate the inextricable ties of artisanal mining in the supply chain.