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The Challenges of Cobalt


The clean energy revolution is replacing fossil fuels such as oil and gas with new and renewable energy sources. Aside from the usual forms of renewable energy like wind turbines, metals and minerals are seen as the new power train. Many of these metals come from specific countries. 65% of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About 80% of the cobalt mined in the DRC originates from industrialized operations that often meet high labor, social and environmental standards. At the same time, part of the cobalt supply is extracted by hand in small-scale, so-called artisanal mines, where serious abuses have been reported.

Artisanal mines in the DRC are often linked to child labor and unsafe work conditions. Umicore has been active in ensuring that the cobalt used in its products and services is sustainably sourced. We have been pioneers in this respect for 20 years now, having been the first company to establish due diligence for our cobalt supply chain through our Sustainable Procurement Framework for cobalt. But what does ‘sustainably sourced’ actually mean? 

Sustainably sourced cobalt means cobalt that is obtained without any human rights violations, child labor or environmental issues, and  with adequate health and safety protection.

Artisanal mines also provide jobs for the people in the region, so local communities need support when it comes to responsible practices. 

To create safe working conditions and help the region develop, we are working together with organizations such as the Global Battery Alliance. This is a public-private partnership that brings together more than 90 different organizations, including government bodies, industries and NGOs, to help shape a circular, responsible and sustainable battery value chain. Umicore is one of its founding members. 

We care about the communities where we operate, so we send Umicore colleagues to visit suppliers in the region to make sure our frameworks are being followed. We also try and engage with the people in the region to support them. Dimitri Duburiez, Sourcing Manager Africa for Umicore, shared the following with us after his last visit: “We visit our cobalt suppliers not only to discuss and follow up on the due diligence of procedures but also to discuss the supplier’s relationship with the communities. During my last visit in April 2022 we discussed the management systems that record the initiatives the suppliers had in place for the community. The first thing on their mind was ensuring the security and safety of their workers and local people, but also training them. We aim to help artisanal miners transition to other activities and other projects that are safer for them. Through entrepreneurship training the suppliers are helping artisanal diggers to move to different activities without experiencing financial difficulties. For example, there is a training course on building and repairing pallets: those who take the course can create a pallet business and help the industry ship products all over the world.”

The perfect example of our support for education and local communities is the school we are building in Lubumbashi,” shared Dimitri. We have already built a primary school with six classes in pre-COVID-19 times, which is providing quality education to 1,000 kids. “Because of our commitment to their education we noticed the school was getting quite busy, so we decided to increase the capacity by adding 10 more classes that also provide technical training courses leading to jobs in the near future. Building the extension was not easy, partly because of the pandemic, but after three years it will be ready for the summer.” 

“The construction of the school is just one chapter but not the end of the story. More education infrastructure is being built in the region that will keep the kids out of the mines.”

Dimitri Duburiez, Sourcing Manager Africa

Dimitri’s testimonial from the field

To ensure our cobalt is sustainable we make sure that it is subject to strict procedures.

Umicore was the first company worldwide to create a Sustainable Procurement Framework for Cobalt, to prevent unsustainable practices in its supply chain and consequently those of its customers. This is applied to all cobalt purchases worldwide. Within this Framework, each supplier undergoes an initial screening and is subject to scheduled and unscheduled site visits. Suppliers’ performance is assessed according to different sustainability criteria, including human rights, environment and health and safety.

These practices are aligned with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. In addition, our application of the Framework receives an annual, independent third-party validation, and we are committed to continuously making improvements.

Umicore makes no compromise when it comes to safeguarding human rights.  We believe that the value chain must eliminate child and forced labor while helping local populations get access to fair revenues.