Trouble has been simmering and brewing in the Democratic Republic of Congo for many decades. Although we occasionally report on it and other media also highlight what's going on in the DRC, the stories typically cool off after a few months until someone else turns the heat up on them.
The headlines regarding the problems in the DRC when it comes to technology and business are typically dominated by revelations of child labor when it comes to some of the country's cobalt and coltan mines. This involves the use of children to mine these minerals that are then sold to smartphones, electric vehicles, and electronics manufacturers around the world.
In recent years, some of the major electronics and technology companies have released statements saying they will be paying closer attention to their supply chains to eliminate "conflict minerals." In another separate case, several families in the DRC are seeking damages from Apple, Tesla, Alphabet, Dell, and Microsoft for benefitting from child mining.
However, child mining is not the only issue affecting the DRC. Recently more attention has been brought on how many people in the country are being killed, raped, and assaulted all in the name of cobalt and coltan mining.
What you need to know
Mining is the primary industry of the DRC. This means that the industry, as compared to other industries in the country, accounts for the largest revenue.
To put this into context, revenues generated by the DRC's mining sector surpassed those of the country's oil and gas sector in 2010, when 63% of the $875 million came from mining companies. In 2017, the DRC's mining industry generated $1,68 billion, accounting for 17,40% of GDP, 55,16% of total government revenues, 99,3% of total exports, and a quarter of total employment.
Whichever way you look at it, the DRC's mining industry is an important sector for the country's development in general. There's a reason for that: the DRC is blessed with some important natural resources in the context of the global economy.
Among many other mineral resources, the DRC plays a pivotal role in the electronic devices and electric vehicles manufacturing supply chain. It is responsible for supplying approximately over 50% of the world’s cobalt which is used in the making of modern jet engines, smartphones, and electric cars, to name but a few.
Also, as mentioned earlier, the DRC is also the main global supplier of another mineral key in the making electronics, coltan.
What is interesting however is that the country's extractive industries are mostly dominated by foreign-owned companies. For example, before announcing the possibility of closing the mine, London Stock Exchange-Glencore owns the Mutanda mine in the DRC. The Mutanda mine is arguable the largest in the DRC as far as cobalt and copper production with reported annual production of 27,300 tonnes of both cobalt and copper.
The pattern of ownership and economic participation is similar across the whole mining industry supply chain in the DRC, i.e. dominated by foreign companies.
Despite all its mineral resources blessings, the DRC somehow continues to remain among the world’s poorest. This appears to be its curse.
I say curse because if we are honest and looking at all possible indicators, the DRC is among the world's poorest countries. The data supports this as well: 63% of the country's approximately 75 million citizens live below the poverty line of less than one dollar a day as reported by the World Bank. It makes no sense that a country blessed with such natural resources is cursed with such levels of poverty and low standards of living for the majority of its people.
This curse also manifests itself in another way as it is now being (re)highlighted in recent weeks. Mass killings by various militia groups have resumed in the DRC during 2020 where they go from village to village and without any provocation kill hundreds of people.
A witness told Human Rights Watch that “two assailants armed with machetes chased [her] brother while others were looting their house.” She managed to hide in the bush and found her brother’s body when she returned in the morning. “They had cut him up in pieces,” she said. - Unrelenting Killings in Congo’s Ituri Province
This is not the first time that various militia are killing innocent civilians. Between 1990 and 2007 the DRC probably the peak of such killings when thousands were innocently killed.
The reason for the killings: control of land and natural resources.
At this point, you have to ask, as much as I call it a curse (suggesting some supernatural power that can't be controlled is at play), who is enabling child mining and who is funding and arming this militia with the sole aim of profiting from cobalt and coltan mining in the DRC?
For now, we don't have a definitive answer to these questions and as far as child mining goes, it is always blamed on "artisanal mines", yet surprisingly your Big Tech companies like Apple, Tesla, Microsoft, and many more continue to source their cobalt and coltan from these artisanal mines.
DRC's potential and solutions
What makes the situation in the DRC even sadder when it comes to business and technology is the potential of the country. Not only is Kinshasa, the DRC's capital, the third-largest city in African behind Cairo and Lagos, it is also at the early stages of technological development with low adoption of smartphones.
This presents many opportunities.
Many people and organizations have tabled several proposals on how to tackle the conflict minerals problem in the DRC. These go from using blockchain technology for identifying the conflict minerals to identifying and stopping sourcing cobalt and coltan from mines that are using child labor.
These all assume that the mining industry will continue to be the country's largest industry for a long time to come, however, how about other things such as improving local manufacturing and keeping as much of the cobalt and coltan supply chain in the DRC as possible so that locals benefit?
There is no denying the importance of the sector currently for the DRC, but as has been demonstrated many times in different countries, it is not a sustainable industry in the long term, especially when the majority of citizens are not benefitting.
Unfortunately like most of the continent's problems, it all starts with politics.
Quote of the day
It makes no sense that a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with such natural resources as cobalt and coltan, is cursed with such levels of poverty and low standards of living for the majority of its people. (Tweet this)
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