203 (21.10.18)

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7. Kolwezi, D.R.C.

How cobalt disappears from trade statistics

Before dawn in Kolwezi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a white British mercenary is sitting in a truck parked-up on the edge of the country’s biggest mine. Instead of breakfast he has a packet of cigarettes and a box of rations, including instant coffee and powdered potato, plus a wad of American dollars. At daybreak the truck leaves, driving in a convoy east, crossing road blocks, timezones and three countries before arriving in the commercial capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam. Many of the roads are unpaved and the 36-hour journey can take several days. The convoy carries its own fuel and as many tyres as possible. Yet this dangerous, ramshackle route carry billions of dollars of metal and the entire future of the car market: it is the main route out of the DRC and Zambia, which produce a million tonnes of copper apiece, equal to 10 per cent of global production, and two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, a critical component in electric car batteries. Metal was originally taken out on trains, travelling west through Angola to the Atlantic, but the line fell into disrepair during a civil war in the 1970s and the DRC’s biggest exporters, including commodities trader Glencore, now rely on trucks instead. President Joseph Kabila has called on battery makers and car groups to “install themselves” in the country, building new facilities in “special economic zones”, whilst mining companies are technically banned from exporting unfinished minerals. But a shortage of electricity means the laws are disregarded and no companies have even invested in a road or rail upgrade. At Dar es Salaam, the cobalt and copper is unloaded, shuffled around on forklift trucks, stuffed into containers and loaded onto boats, fanning out across the Indian Ocean. Export records are sketchy, but most shipments go to the UAE, India or China, which is pumping loans into the port in competition with the World Bank. The city remains dangerous (shipping companies tell crew not to go out after dark to minimise their insurance premiums) and the port is inefficient (containers can go missing or sit on the dock for ten days). Warehouse owners say otherwise. “There is no item we have not handled,” one transit company says. “We will take care of it like a new born.”

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60 days

Kolwezi to Dar es Salaam can take up to 20 days by truck. Port turnaround times are almost as slow. Adding 30 days shipping to China and it can take two months to get cobalt out of the DRC


The DRC will mine and ship 91,000 tonnes of cobalt this year, equal to 68 per cent of global production, according to Wood Mackenzie


Cobalt has surged in recent years and the DRC’s cobalt exports are now worth over $5bn. Including copper from the DRC and Zambia and the two countries are trucking ~$18bn of metal to ports