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DR Congo launches scheme to rescue informal cobalt miners from swindlers

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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is initiating an ambitious scheme known as the Musompo Trading Centre. The scheme, backed by the government and run by Congolese firm SudSouth, aims to alleviate the hardships faced by artisanal miners in the mineral-rich African country.

At present, scruffy depots filled with bags of ore line the roads leading to Kolwezi, the mining capital of DR Congo, in the southeast region. These depots, adorned with markings like “CoCu” (representing cobalt and copper), serve as places where traders evaluate the purity of illegally mined ore brought in by the informal miners and set the prices accordingly. However, the miners complain that these traders manipulate purity readings to swindle them.

“There’s trickery everywhere,” said Paul Bande, a 45-year-old miner working at the Kamilombe artisanal mine near Kolwezi.

To address this exploitation and promote fair trade, the government is establishing the Musompo Trading Centre in Lualaba province. This center aims to eliminate the involvement of mercenary middlemen by offering to test and store the ore directly from the miners. Willy Yav, CEO of SudSouth, referred to the average ore trader as a “mafia guy” and believes that this trading center will uplift the image of artisanal cobalt, leading to improved working conditions and higher income for the miners.

The Musompo Trading Centre will incorporate a traceability and certification scheme to ensure that the ore it handles comes from artisanal mines that meet specific rights and safety standards. This measure seeks to address concerns surrounding child labor, hazardous working conditions, and corruption in the artisanal cobalt mining sector, which has been casting a shadow on Congo’s cobalt industry.

Congo is a significant global producer of cobalt, responsible for over 70% of the world’s supply of the metal used extensively in electronics and electric vehicles. Although most cobalt is sourced from large-scale industrial mines, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people work as artisanal miners in illegal mining sites.

However, legal challenges pose obstacles to the successful implementation of the Musompo Trading Centre. According to Congolese law, artisanal miners are allowed to operate only within government-designated zones and must be members of approved cooperatives. But in reality, these laws are not strictly enforced, and many artisanal miners work outside the designated zones on concessions owned by multinational mining companies. This legal ambiguity may hamper legitimate buyers from purchasing ore from the Musompo center.

Another complicating factor is the role of the state-owned company, Entreprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC), which holds a monopoly on buying and marketing artisanally mined cobalt. Although launched in 2021 to support the artisanal sector and influence cobalt prices globally, EGC has yet to purchase any cobalt.

Despite these challenges, Willy Yav remains hopeful that the Musompo Trading Centre can collaborate with the Kamilombe artisanal mine on a pilot basis. Success in this venture could serve as a model for reforming the entire informal cobalt mining sector.

An anonymous USAID critical minerals adviser acknowledges the potential of the scheme but highlights the need to address legal issues and find buyers for artisanally mined cobalt.

Enthusiasm for the Musompo scheme is evident in Kamilombe, a sprawling artisanal site with around 1,000 tunnels near Kolwezi and situated on a state-owned concession. Miners like Paul Bande eagerly await the establishment of the government-backed

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