The Challenges of Cobalt


The clean energy revolution is replacing fossil fuels like oil and gas with new sources. Aside from the usual forms of renewable energy like wind turbines, metals and minerals are being considered as the new power train. Many of these metals come from specific countries, in the case of cobalt a big part of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The DRC produces no less than 65% of the world’s cobalt. As such, it remains an important source. 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 severe social misconduct has been reported.

Artisanal mines in the area are often linked to child labor and unsafe work conditions. Umicore has taken a role in ensuring that cobalt used in their products and services is sustainably sourced. We’ve the pioneers on this topic for already 20 years. But what does sustainably sourced mean? 

Sustainably sourced cobalt means there is no infringement of human rights, child labor, environmental issues, and inadequate health and safety protection. Our Global Sustainable Sourcing Policy mitigates the supply chain risks, including human rights. The Charter outlines our commitment to fair dealing, transparency and communication, health and safety, and our efforts to include smaller sized and local suppliers in our procurement processes wherever possible, to support local economies where we operate.

Because these artisanal mines also mean jobs for the people in the region, they need support when it comes to only using sustainable cobalt. 

To create safe work conditions and help the region develop we are working together with organizations such as the Global Battery Alliance. It is a public-private partnership that brings together 80 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. 

Among its projects the cobalt action partnership brings NGOs, companies and local stakeholders together to address the socioeconomic risks. The partnership seeks to coordinate stakeholder engagement on responsible cobalt production practices and sourcing expectations, with a clear focus on on-the-ground projects. One key example is the development of a common standard for artisanal small-scale cobalt.

Because we care about the communities where we operate we have Umicore colleagues visiting suppliers in the region to make sure our frameworks are being followed but also that the people in the region are being supported. Dimitri Duburiez is Sourcing Manager Africa for Umicore and shared with us about 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 about the supplier’s relationship with the communities. At my last visit in April 2022 we discussed the management systems that record the initiatives they had in place for the community. The first thing on their mind was ensuring the security and safety of their workers and the surroundings but also training them. We aim to help artisanal miners transition to other activities and other projects that are safer for them. Through entrepreneurship trainings they are helping artisanal diggers to move to different activities without having financial issues. There is for example a training on building and repairing pallets, they can create a business around that. Helping the industry ship products all over the world”.

Additionally,  there’s also the Fund for the Prevention of Child Labour in Mining Communities done in collaboration with UNICEF. The Fund seeks to address the issue of child labor in DRC’s cobalt mines by strengthening communities and addressing the root causes of the problem. Through a multi-sectoral package of interventions, the Fund-supported projects will contribute towards alleviating poverty, strengthening social services for children, supporting responsible production and consumption and getting children out of mines.

The perfect example of our support to education and the communities is the school we are building in Lubumbashi”, shared Dimitri. We have already built a primary school with 6 classes in pre-covid times, and is offering quality education to 1000 kids. “Because of our commitment to their education we noticed the school was getting quite packed so we decided to increase the capacity to 10 more classes that also include technical trainings leading to jobs in the near future”. Building the extension was not easy due to different circumstances including the pandemic but after 3 years it will be ready for the summer. 

“The construction of the school is just one chapter but not the end of the story, there’s still work to keep building more infrastructure for education in the region and keep the kids out of the mines”.

Dimitri Duburiez, Sourcing Manager Africa

Dimitri’s testimonial from the field

Safeguarding Human Rights

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.