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Fair Cobalt Alliance: sector opts for sustainable cobalt mining

Cobalt: you never see it, but it’s there in many of your home devices. Cobalt is an important raw material that makes batteries last longer. In 2019, 60% of global cobalt production came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The conditions under which the mineral is mined there are often abysmal. “The Fair Cobalt Alliance aims to improve working and living conditions for the people in the communities around the cobalt mines,” says Operations Manager Jose Diemel.

The Fair Cobalt Alliance is an initiative of The Impact Facility. This international NGO, co-founded by the British Fairtrade Foundation, is committed to small mining communities. In addition to the NGO, the alliance includes a range of companies, including co-founders Fairphone (sustainable smartphone manufacturer), Signify (lighting manufacturer, the parent company of Philips, among others) and Huayou (global player in cobalt trade). We spoke to Operations Manager Jose Diemel and Programme Director David Sturmes, who run the Fair Cobalt Alliance together.

David Sturmes: “The Impact Facility has been involved in the gold sector for several years, especially in East Africa. You see the same problems in the cobalt sector, but on a larger scale. That’s because a cobalt mine is usually much larger than a gold mine. One cobalt mine sometimes employs thousands of people, whereas this is often much less in a gold mine. We are now applying our experience in making gold mining more sustainable to cobalt mines. We started researching and building partnerships in mid-2018. In the autumn of 2020, our first two projects got off the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the city of Kolwezi.”

What does fair cobalt mean? 

The Fair Cobalt Alliance wants the people and communities who mine cobalt to benefit from this as well. That they would no longer be merely ‘tools’, but can also build something themselves. So they can stand on their own two feet when they can no longer earn a living through cobalt mining.

To achieve this, the Fair Cobalt Alliance focuses on:

  • eliminating child labour
  • safer mines with higher wages for workers
  • economic diversification: ensuring that communities are no longer solely dependent on cobalt mines for their income

Jose Diemel: “We focus on a fair relationship between the stakeholders in the chain. And on the transition to better conditions. Being realistic is crucial in this Congolese situation. At the moment, there is actually not one single small-scale mine that comes close to the standards set by the government. These, for example, cover the elimination of child labour, equal rights for men and women, accident prevention, involving the community, and dealing with toxic mining waste. We must give these small-scale mines the opportunity to improve step by step in all these areas. We tackle the most urgent aspects first, and then keep working towards a sustainable chain.”

Sustainable cobalt: a matter of global importance

In 2016, Amnesty International published a shocking report about cobalt mining in small-scale mines in the Congo. Dangerous underground work with very basic material, exposure to hazardous substances, child labour, etc. appeared to be commonplace.

David: “Companies mainly responded with a ‘how do we avoid our name being linked to this’, not with a ‘how do we solve this’. They tended to avoid the small-scale mines and only buy cobalt from industrial mines. But it’s not that black and white. The causes of the abuse don’t just disappear because a buyer makes certain demands. They shift somewhere else instead. You also cannot just take away the livelihood of the people who work in these small-scale mines.”

Leaving the Congo is also not an option: more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt is in the Congolese ground. “Both for the people that work there and for the global economy, it is crucial to invest in Congolese cobalt mining. And therefore tackle the causes of these poor working conditions and child labour,” says David Sturmes.

Because everything is connected, The Impact Facility decided to set up an alliance that brings together parties throughout the entire cobalt chain. Jose Diemel: “For the first time, mining companies, buyers, governments and electronics manufacturers are saying ‘this is a shared problem and we are all willing to invest in the solution’. In the past, they all pointed to each other. With the Fair Cobalt Alliance, they now take joint responsibility for how things work in the chain.”

“In June 2020, we published the Digging for Change report. This is the starting point for our initiatives. Here we pooled all the knowledge and research we already had about the cobalt sector, as well as our related experience in the gold sector. For us, as a specialised NGO, it quickly became clear what we had to do in the cobalt mines, but understandably the players in the cobalt sector wanted to have a good understanding of everything before investing.”

Striving for a better life for the whole region

David Sturmes: “Many NGOs in Africa are committed to sustainable trade. But unfortunately, too often we see communities go back to square one after the NGO programme has finished. That is why we wanted to involve the whole sector. We connect companies, governments, employees and other actors from each stage of the chain. Improving the lives of more people requires investment.”

“We start from a non-profit basis, but at the same time can really invest in,  for example, machines. That motivates the mines to keep putting in effort,” says David Sturmes. “We don’t show up with the approach ‘children are not allowed to work’, but with a broad perspective for improvement. More health and safety for the workers, but also more output.” By doing this, the Fair Cobalt Alliance aims to tackle working conditions and child labour not only in the mines, but in the entire region. This is only possible thanks to partnerships with other organisations in the area.

Path to fair cobalt

“What is special about the Fair Cobalt Alliance is that we work with the situation as it currently stands,” Jose Diemel explains. “Certification programmes often issue a red or a green flag – and sometimes an orange one. A company is either doing it right or wrong, and there is little in between. But at the moment it is very unlikely that small-scale cobalt mines in the Congo will already meet all certification standards. We are looking at: how can we help miners and companies to achieve that green flag, step by step and over the course of a few years? We set up a continuous improvement plan. That includes a whole series of criteria that they are working towards over a period of three years. Things like more stable and better ventilated mine shafts, better sanitary facilities for the miners, the continuous monitoring and prevention of accidents etc. are considered. We guide them through this. In other words: the fact that there are still many improvements to be made at a small-scale mine is, for our members, precisely the reason to roll up their sleeves, not disassociate themselves from it.”

David adds: “In the Congo, borrowing money is extremely expensive; interest is sometimes as high as 100%. That makes it very difficult to build something up. Our concrete investments must act as a catalyst to make the sector more modern and safer. We also see it as our role to connect people, companies and organisations. If the stakeholders understand each other’s perspective and potential buyers see how cobalt is mined, they are more likely to engage in efforts that will pay off for everyone in the long-run.”

“To achieve our goal, we have to join together lots of pieces of the puzzle, but we are working on several of those pieces at the same time,” Jose adds to her colleague’s insight. “We are talking to the Congolese government so that we can support them in the steps they are already taking. In parallel we’re also working with the cooperatives that unite the employees and with Chinese cobalt buyers. Together with them, we look at what steps are needed to achieve that ‘green flag’ and what the pitfalls are. Meanwhile, we are also growing the alliance itself. Because we want to invest in several mines in the region to employ around 150,000 miners in total. For that we need the support and capital of more companies.”

Ready to make an impact

For the first year and a half of the project, the Fair Cobalt Alliance worked on creating a solid foundation. From 2021 onwards it wants to have a concrete impact on the miners and their communities.

Jose Diemel: “We built relationships with the Congolese government, with NGOs and other international organisations that do complementary work in the Congo, such as Save the Children, but also the Cobalt Action Partnership, part of the Global Battery Alliance. We have recruited new members including battery manufacturers, car companies, a smartphone manufacturer, as well as the Chinese industry body Responsible Cobalt Initiative. We have developed a framework that others can adopt to make cobalt mining more sustainable and are ready for the next steps that will take place actually in the mines. And they will have a lasting impact, because we are tackling it sector-wide.”

The Fair Cobalt Alliance is aware they are being put under the microscope because their members also include multinationals, such as resource giant Glencore. “Our members and partners feel that critical eye and are eager to see results themselves. They all recognise that it is in everyone’s interest that the problems in the chain are addressed. Now that work has begun on the ground, we are going to monitor our impact very carefully. To do this, we will be working with an independent party from 2021. And we will communicate transparently about which targets we are achieving or not achieving and why,” assures David Sturmes. The independent monitoring system will also verify whether the members are adhering to the agreements of the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

In order to further involve all stakeholders in the various aspects of the cobalt chain, this year the Fair Cobalt Alliance is starting up a collection of working groups. Jose Diemel: “The members will exchange knowledge and experiences directly, and gain better insight into each other’s perspective. This will lead to a really positive, combined impact.”

High expectations then. But the Fair Cobalt Alliance also wants to be realistic. “You have to see everything in context. This is the Congo, there are so many things going on that you don’t have any control over. That is why transparency about our approach and our results is so important,” concludes David Sturmes.

Text: Griet Rebry

Photos: copyright: Fair Cobalt Initiative
Header: Washer
1. Miners
2. Children working
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