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As the demand for the minerals in battery production, including cobalt, is set to increase to power the transition to a greener economy, the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA)was launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo in response to poor economic, social and working conditions for many mining communities in the cobalt supply chain.

The FCA was set up by social enterprise Fairphone, with partners Signify, the world leader in lighting; Huayou Cobalt, a leading supplier of the metal and The Impact Facility, an organisation designed to convene supply chains to empower ASM communities and enable diversification of mining economies.

Read more: Positioning DRC as a key cobalt producer

The founding members are joined by one of the world’s largest global diversified natural resource companies, Glencore; the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI), a programme established by Chinese cobalt refining and mining companies active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to tackle risks facing workers at artisanal mines in the cobalt supply chain; German mobility provider, Sono Motors and Lifesaver, which delivers hire and return portable power banks for events and venues.

Knowledge and development organisations, amongst them Miller Center for Entrepreneurship, and Congolese civil society, including the Centre Arrupe pour la Recherche et la Formation (CARF) are also actively supporting and participating in the initiative.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, implemented by The Netherlands Enterprise Agency, contributes to the alliance through a multi-year grant.

Read more: Cobalt collaboration in the DRC

The FCA is set up to work with the DRC government and civil society partners to tackle problems in the cobalt supply chain linked to artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), such as poor working conditions and child labour, and build a source of responsible cobalt from the ASM sector.

The members of the FCA will be working closely with both national and provincial DRC government and with civil society and implementing partners towards three objectives:

  • Drive the supply of fairer cobalt by supporting the professionalisation of ASM mining management and safer and environmentally more responsible sites.
  • Work towards child-labour free Kolwezi mines by supporting ASM operators in establishing credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of the mines and support the enrolment of children into school, allowing children and youth access to education and vocational training.
  • Increase household incomes by investing in community programmes, designed to create sustainable livelihoods other than mining, focused on the promotion of agriculture, entrepreneurship and financial literacy support projects.

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Cobalt is a key mineral in battery production and the longer-term transition to a low-carbon economy. This initiative connects cobalt from the ASM operations in Lualaba Province, in the DRC, to the global electronics and automotive supply chains.

Full implementation will take five years and will start in mines located in Kasulu and Kamilombe in the DRC, with the ambition to scale to more mines.

In 2020, the FCA will strengthen cooperation with the Responsible Cobalt Initiative and the Responsible Minerals Initiative with the aim of working with key stakeholders to achieve wider recognition of responsible ASM cobalt and encouraging joint action of upstream and downstream players to increase the supply of responsible ASM cobalt.

With the global energy transition to more sustainable, battery-led technology, the demand for cobalt is widely expected to increase. A fairer battery is the key to making this shift. However, global cobalt supply is not projected to meet demand, and there is a risk that informal ASM under poor working conditions will increase to fill this gap. ASM is often associated with hazardous working conditions, child labour, and limited access to legitimate, transparent markets – falling well below international standards.

As things currently stand, more than two-thirds of global cobalt supply comes from the DRC. Although the majority originates from large-scale mining operations, a significant portion is extracted by ASM. Best estimates suggest that in 2019 about 11% of cobalt exported was from ASM, while at the peak of cobalt prices in 2018 ASM counted for as much as 20%.

More significantly, cobalt ASM is a source of direct employment for more than 100 000 people, with the number of workers fluctuating based on market prices and especially now in light of the ongoing pandemic. Across metals and gemstones, experts estimate there are a total of 1.5 to 2 million artisanal miners in the DRC.

“Millions of livelihoods in the DRC and around the world depend on ASM. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) encourages industry to responsibly engage with the sector through progressive improvement instead of avoiding it, which often only makes problems in ASM more hidden. We fully support the Fair Cobalt Alliance’s goal of investing in better working conditions for ASM, and other similar projects, in order to bring more transparency to the sector while expanding market access for small-scale producers,” says Benjamin Katz, policy analyst at the OECD.

According to Dr. Assheton Stewart Carter, executive director of The Impact Facility and the Fair Cobalt Alliance, “the security of cobalt supply chains is more important than ever as our need for this highly relevant mineral in the new digital economy becomes evident.

“Where we find environmental, social or labour problems in supply chains, we should not avoid them, we should not disengage, but rather it is our duty to take action and make improvements. The Fair Cobalt Alliance is a bold move to do just that – to bring about systemic change by working with the local partners and engaging all businesses in the supply chain to achieve a common goal,” Carter notes.