The Difficulty in Ending the DRC’s Mining Regions’ Plight

Reflecting on Cobalt Red’s final recommendations

Robert M. Vunabandi
13 min readMar 23, 2024

Cobalt Red, a book by Siddhartha Kara, details the horrible situation in which the artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and their communities suffer a great deal for the benefit of Western people and multinational companies, and in the final chapter of the book, Kara makes recommendations as to what should be done to uplift the Congolese people who toil in these mining regions on a daily basis.

Kara begins by claiming that the world should provide “the ability of the Congolese people to do their own research and safely speak for themselves” as a first step. Kara then also urges people to spread awareness of the Congolese mining situations. Finally, Kara suggests that “the path begins with accountability. … [and] The biggest problem faced by the Congo’s artisanal miners is that stakeholders up the chain refuse to accept responsibility for them, even though they all profit in one way or another from their work.”

Within these recommendations, a big question is posed which got me thinking. Kara asks: “we would not send children of Cupertino to scrounge for cobalt in toxic pits, so why is it permissible to send the children of the Congo?”

To me, the answer seems obvious. “We” — and by “we” I assume that Kara is referring to the American society and the Western world at large — are not sending Cupertino children to scrounge for cobalt in toxic pits because (1) that would be illegal and (2) we’d most definitely end up fined and in jail if we did. As much as I wish Americans helped, I find that the onus isn’t on them to prevent Congolese children mining from happening, and that is also why I believe that demanding more accountability from American companies isn’t necessarily where those who are trying to solve this problem should invest all their resources.


Incentives Rule the World …

If I, as a company or a person, hire another company or person to do a job for me, the only incentives I have are to get what I hired the company for and to make sure that it doesn’t get me in trouble (i.e., that hiring this company isn’t leading me to knowingly doing something illegal). Beyond that, there aren’t any other incentives for me to do much more: it’s not on me to figure out whether the company is doing the job in the most “ethical” ways possible or that it’s doing it with the standard of ethics that I personally live or agree with. While I can try my best to choose the most ethical of companies, it’s not on me to inspect how the job is done.

Cupertino is clearly a shot at Apple. Based on this article, Apple claims the following:

In 2014, we were the first to start mapping our cobalt supply chain to the mine level and since 2016, we have published a full list of our identified cobalt refiners every year, 100% of which are participating in independent third party audits. If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain. We’ve removed six cobalt refiners in 2019.

To me, the fact that Apple makes such a statement is already something that goes above and beyond Apple’s own incentives. Apple, like every other company involved in getting Cobalt through the supply chain, are hiring some other company to provide the Cobalt (or other minerals). If one follows these companies down the supply chain, one will eventually get to the companies that have received a license to extract minerals from the DRC and who are, on a monthly and even yearly basis, making money by directly exploiting the artisanal miners.

… And Companies Closest to the Artisanal Miners Have No Incentives to be Ethical

As documented in the book, these companies (or people) use various tactics to exploit artisanal miners.

  • One of these tactics is debt bondage. They do this by paying someone to dig in their compound for an initial period where they won’t be finding any mineral (because you have to get somewhat deep in the ground to start finding the cobalt ores) and then telling them that they have to keep working in the mines to pay off the debt they owe while they were paid without finding any ore. This is clearly exploitation.
  • Another tactic is by obfuscating the source of the Cobalt such that the question of whether it was mine with child labor or not can never be answered. When companies like Apple demand that child labor be removed from the supply chain, the companies on the ground can claim that their cobalt didn’t involve any child labor because they purchase it from adult “négociants” who purchase the ore in bundle from many different groups (some of which involve child labor and some of which doesn’t).
  • Then, you also have the official Congolese FARDC army soldiers who force children to work in the mines. The book tells the story of one soldier named Zeus who straight up shot a 12 year old because the child wanted to go sell his mined cobalt ore directly (see below).
A post from my instagram @robertv.reads

All in all, these companies and soldiers are doing these sorts of exploitation simply because they are allowed to. They are allowed to because they are not punished for participating in these many unethical behaviors (especially when the army—the bodily force who is supposed to protect the Congolese people—is letting its own soldier exploit people in these ways). Therefore, they currently have no incentives to make any change in how they conduct their business.

What Would Change Look Like?

Even if Apple wanted to help prevent such situations from happening, how would Apple alone do that exactly? It would take not just Apple but a total and collaborative effort from many of the companies involved up the chain to completely boycott the purchase of these minerals until the situation changes. This would have to be a multinational effort, and it would categorically halt the global market for days — causing billions if not trillions of lost dollars in the process, for such a change to happen. A heavy, heavy cost to pay, and even if they didn’t go through such lengths and managed to somehow make change happen, what would this change look like in the end?

Well, it would have to involve the following (and probably more):

  • Safety standards for artisanal miners. Most deaths and injuries seem to happen when mine tunnels collapse, so there needs to be safety standards in place to prevent such collapses. In addition, in many of the interviews that Kara conducted, miners complained about not being able to breathe while inside tunnels, and there were also various occasions of mineral waste that contaminated and polluted the surrounding environment. There should be standards to prevent all of these externalities as much as possible in the form of labor laws and industrial waste management laws.
  • Miner protections laws. The mining companies are under no obligation to treat those who get injured in the process of mining from within their concessions. Many times after a tunnel collapse happened, the injured would get a 1-week treatment and then be expelled from the hospitals for injuries (such as broken legs/arms/etc) that often require months if not years of physical therapy and ongoing treatment. If these companies are putting such risks on their employees, these employees should be protected under laws against accidents at work.
  • A total or partial ban of child labor coupled with increased pay. First, some context: in places like the Congo where people are so poor that they can’t make even $1/day, families have no other options than to have their children contribute to increasing the families’ incomes so that they can literally survive. The only way for such a ban to be practical in places like this is for the parents (and “adult enough” people) to be earning enough that there’s no need for children to work—a luxury that perhaps is taken for granted in the Western world. With that said, for every minimum working age increase (to be allowed to work in the mines and/or other jobs), there needs to be a mandated increase in the wages of those who are allowed and choosing to work in the mines. Alternatively, there needs to be other sources of income that involve less risks such that these families at least have options — which would more naturally increase demand for workers and their wages.
  • Standards around the treatment of employees (i.e. artisanal miners). As mentioned above, that soldier literally shot a 12 year old kid. This still hasn’t sunk in for me, and that soldier is still roaming the streets and probably coercing other children to work. As the situation currently is, there are absolutely no consequences for mistreating (or even killing) the artisanal miners. They practically have no rights and are deprived of any dignity. They risk their lives all day to mine these minerals, and when injuries and deaths happen, there’s no one to help them. That should change: instead, there should be consequences to mistreating or not ensuring the protection of ones’ employees.

I could continue listing more of what this “change” should look like. However, the more I do, the clearer a pattern emerges: THESE ARE ALL LAWS, RULES, AND REGULATIONS, and who is responsible for enacting and enforcing laws, rules, and regulations? Is Apple responsible for it? Is Dell responsible, or is it Tesla? Is it even the many Chinese mining companies who are taking advantage of the lack of laws, rules, and regulations? Nope.

Who Should Be the Most Accountable?

Once again, the reason Apple doesn’t send Cupertino children to work in mines (if there were such mines) is because Apple would face irreparable consequences and many of its executives would probably go straight to jail, not to mention how many Americans would actually boycott Apple or file for class action lawsuits. The American society has said that it’s unethical for children to work, and in turn, the government has enacted laws to prevent that from happening (which are upheld with the full force of a well managed police and legal system). Anyone that dares challenge these laws will face heavy consequences, and that is exactly why it doesn’t happen.

On the flip-side, Congolese politicians are enriching themselves in the process and not caring about their own people. This government does nothing to prevent these atrocities from happening besides. This government’s own army is literally partaking in the mistreatment of its people (as an aside, I often ask myself: why does no one see that a win-win situation is better for everyone? 🤔 Any long-term thinker can see that a win-win situation for the miners and the politicians will creates a bigger pie with more for everyone).

A quote directly from Cobalt Red:

When I reviewed the DRC’s budget for 2021, called the Projet de Loi de Finances de L’Exercise, I was surprised to uncover the following two pieces of information: 1) taxes, royalties, and other revenues collected from the mining sector did not appear anywhere in the $6.9 billion national budget, and 2) Lualaba Province was listed as contributing only 4.1 percent of revenues to the central government’s total budget. I checked 2018, and again, Lualaba Province was listed as contributing only 4.1 percent of revenues to the national budget, the same year that Glencore—[a Lualaba based company]—alone was responsible for 18.3 percent. The years 2019 and 2020 also showed Lualaba Province contributing 4.1 percent. Were these just made-up numbers? Where were all the revenues from the mining sector going? … Graft seemed to infect almost every level of governance in the DRC, quite apart from the financial trickery allegedly used by foreign mining companies to shortchange the Congolese government.

The Congolese politicians involved in the mining sectors are essentially taking all this money and putting it in their own pockets or serving their own wants above their constituents’ needs. They are allowing this type of suffering to continue to happen by not enacting laws to prevent the exploitation and the utter disregard of artisanal miners’ lives and by not enforcing the laws that already exist or that can be enacted.

When most of the world’s supply of cobalt (and other key minerals in the production of hardware devices) come from the DRC, what can Apple realistically do about this—even if Apple truly wanted to help? The way I see it, even if Apple mobilized and committed a large percentage of its efforts (say 52% — the percentage of revenue generated by the iPhone in 2023 — equivalent to ~200 billions dollars) to fixing this issue and ensuring that somehow these laws are enacted, that would make a much much smaller dent to the issue than the Congolese government mobilizing a small if not tiny fraction of its efforts to enacting and enforcing laws to fix these problems. Therefore, the one single entity that is most responsible and most accountable to the artisanal mining problem in the DRC’s mining regions is the Congolese government, and because of that, I believe that creating a meaningful change in this governing body should instead be the focus for anyone trying to solve these issues.

Image from Amazon

Still, This is HARD.

Still, this is a tough problem. This is a tough human problem. There are so many people who are benefiting from this system. The former president of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, is benefiting from these exploitations. The mining companies — most of which are Chinese — and by association China, are benefiting from these exploitations. Even the Apples and Teslas of the world are benefiting — or why else would they often be called out to try to fix the problem. Many Congolese politicians are benefiting, and neighboring countries (Rwanda, which has been in the heat about this for quite some time, and Zambia—who might also be doing the same to its people) are also benefiting.

There simply aren’t that many powerful enough individuals who can simply and easily make this change happen without facing potentially deadly pushback from everyone who is benefitting. I doubt that even the current president of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, has enough power to make a meaningful dent in this situation. There are just way too many forces that are extremely incentivized to prevent such changes from happening.

Therefore, in writing this blog, it is something that I need to acknowledge. It is perhaps for this very reason that the author, Siddharth Kara, pushes for the companies at the top of the chain — the Apples and Teslas of the world — to have more accountability and push for more humane working conditions for these artisanal miners, because perhaps if anyone has the power to demand change, it would be the Apples and Teslas of the world. Perhaps, no one else nor any other company is powerful enough to enact the necessary changes.

Still, let’s not fool ourselves on who the onus is on to fix the exploitation of artisanal miners and communities in the DRC: the onus is on the Congolese government.

What Can You Do?

I believe that it is wrong to offer criticism without offering an alternative. While I’m criticizing the final recommendation from Siddharth Kara in Cobalt Red, I cannot stress enough just how important it would be for people to read this book. It’s so important because there’s very little that the story of the DRC is NOT interconnected with. Including obviously cobalt (which is used in the manufacturing of electronic devices), the Cold Wars and nuclear powers (uranium), the foundation of car wheels (rubber), jewelry (gold & diamond), terrorist groups across the world who apparently use the mining process to launder money, Europe and the EU by virtue of colonialism, the US at large (see Cold Wars), etc.

With all of that said, here are some very humble recommendations (in addition to what Kara recommended already):

  • Read the book: the easiest anyone from anywhere can do is to simply read the book and get acquainted with the issue. There’s so much awareness that you will get from just this.
  • Spread awareness: It’s still important to spread awareness. Awareness can often be the source of change. This is the same recommendation that Kara gives which I am repeating.
  • Donate to NGOs that are helping in the fight: I’m sure you can do an easy Google search to find various NGOs involved in the DRC either for this cause or for other causes — as the DRC is just drowning with problems. The reason I am not recommending specific NGOs is because I want to do extensive research myself to find what NGO I feel comfortable donating my money to. (The book also seemed to document various NGOs that likely intentionally benefit from the situation as well — although such claims aren’t fully verifiable. The more likely scenario that I imagine is that those who are part of an NGO can also face deadly consequences for helping too much in the situation).
  • Maybe you are someone that can help: While help can come in the form of donation, it can also come in the form of helping a Congolese person get a scholarship and education, in the form of going into the Congo and helping directly, etc.

I’m no expert in this matter, so take any recommendation from me with a grain of salt. One thing that I think about often is how would one tackle these problems from a more fundamental level. I believe that there might be a simple root cause that can help solve this problem in the most extensive way possible, and I look for it. Perhaps, the problem lies in Capitalism and in finding a new system of organizing an economy that prevents externalities. Perhaps, the problem lies in the generational trauma and alteration of perspectives that many African people face after centuries of slavery and exploitation. Perhaps, the problem is just that of human nature and how people’s incentives change when they develop a deeply scare mindset as a result of often not having enough to live comfortably (such is the case for most people in DRC). Perhaps, the problem is geographical: there are countless videos out there that explain that the geography of Africa as a continent just isn’t the best for the fastest development of advanced civilization.

Perhaps my humblest suggestion would be to spend time, every day, thinking about these issues and how to solve them because we’re clearly not doing a good enough job and because the lives of the artisanal miners are being taken away nearly every day that this issue doesn’t get solved.



Robert M. Vunabandi

Learning through life experiences and books, I share my ever-evolving understanding of the world and the niche-sphere of life that I live in.