International collaboration the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) – launched in August last year – has begun implementing programmes to drive the safe and responsible development of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The founding members of the FCA, alongside The Impact Facility, include Fairphone, Signify and Huayou Cobalt. These members were later joined by Glencore, the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, Sono Motors, Livesaver and Tesla prior to the launch of the FCA.
FCA and global sustainability organisation The Impact Facility founder Assheton Carter states that these programmes intend to support artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities in the country through improving ASM site safety, and implementing education capacity improvement and entrepreneurial programmes.
“Part of the call to action in the FCA isn’t just philanthropic donation, it’s about recognising that there can be legitimate, artisanal mining in the DRC. That’s just as important as making a financial contribution,” he enthuses.
The FCA seeks to achieve these goals by supporting the professionalisation of ASM site management, ensuring an uptake of responsible mining practices and channelling financial investment into mine improvements. These would contribute towards making mines safer, minimising environmental impact and creating decent working conditions.
The FCA is also set up to work with the DRC government and civil society partners to deal with ASM-linked challenges in the cobalt supply chain, specifically poor working conditions and child labour, while building a source of responsible cobalt from the ASM sector.
With the global energy transition to more sustainable, battery-led technologies, the demand for cobalt is expected to increase. Global cobalt supply, however, is not projected to meet demand, with a risk that the ASM sector – including its associated poor working conditions – will increase to fill this gap.
Carter highlights that one of the initial programmes which has begun being rolled out focuses on implementing safety initiatives at cobalt ASM mines in the DRC.
This safety programme will focus on reducing the size and depth of the pits at cobalt ASM sites through excavating exercises, as they pose a safety risk. He adds that safety training is also conducted with ASM operators to be able to work safely.
Another programme aims to reduce child labour at mine sites. Carter highlights this as a systemic issue because of a lack of access to affordable schooling for children and after-school activities.
The programme will increase the capacity of local schools, particularly as many schools do not have the necessary capacity to educate children.
“While appearing straightforward, it’s effective to increase the capacity of schools. There’s a thirst for education in the country, and this programme is aimed to meet that need and boost capacity.”
Carter adds that the FCA plans also to roll out a programme that focuses on diversifying the economy within mine-based communities through entrepreneurialism.
This programme aims to establish a more resilient economy within communities around mining operations to ensure that they continue to thrive, even after a mine site is closed. This will entail investing in economic activities outside mining to create sustainable livelihoods for community members.
Full implementation of these programmes will take five years and will start in the Kasulu and Kamilombe communities, with ambitions to scale up to include more mines, says Carter.
Carter explains that mining operations have a significant opportunity to let their surrounding communities benefit, particularly as the life of a mine can range from 20 to 100 years.
“That includes several generations where you have the opportunity to prepare a community to be more resilient and adapt to economic changes. You don’t find that in any other sector. After agriculture, mining is the biggest employer in Africa.”
He points out that, generally, when a mineral is extracted, the operation is developed and operated by large organisations with foreign investment and which have concluded contracts with government authorities; local communities often do not benefit from these economic development opportunities.
Carter emphasises that, while many large miners make an effort to deal with development issues in these communities, mining companies are obligated to protect their shareholder value and commercial interests, and not necessarily those of the communities.
However, protecting commercial interests can be done in a responsible and conscientious manner.
There are different actors in the supply chain and the FCA is trying to bring them to fix these issues,” he concludes.