Chances are you’re reading this on a smartphone or PC. These gadgets are an integral part of everyday life, but not without immense pain for some people. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a major source of rare minerals used in all sorts of modern devices. The industry is plagued with human rights abuses and many companies simply turn a blind eye in the name of profit. At least two in Japan are finding innovative ways to end suffering.
The DRC is the world’s largest producer of tantalum, a mineral used to make capacitors for smartphones and computers. Armed groups dominate in the mountainous eastern region where the material is mined. A battle for control has raged for two decades, claiming the lives of more than five million people. The conflict is the deadliest since World War II.
The UN refugee agency says that by November last year, 5.6 million people had been internally displaced. The number of people forced to flee the country exceeds 800,000.
With good reason, tantalum from the DRC is known around the world as a “conflict mineral”.
Trade has a “high human cost”
“People in eastern DRC feel like no one cares about them, no one knows about their suffering,” says Jean Claude Maswana, professor of economics at Ritsumeikan University in Shiga prefecture. .
Maswana grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, and has lived in Japan for over 20 years. Residents of war-torn provinces regularly inform him of the conflict.
During a recent conversation with a civilian group leader in South Kivu province, Maswana learned that residents of several villages had been forced from their homes due to fighting. Some were killed in their flight.
“The exploitation of minerals has a terrible human cost,” he says.
Efforts to End Abuse Fail
Some countries have tried to block tantalum from the DRC from entering the global supply chain. The US government has required companies to disclose whether their products contain minerals from the African nation since 2010. And the European Union is enforcing a similar measure.
But tantalum and other conflict minerals such as tin, tungsten and gold are often traded across multiple continents, making it difficult to trace their origins. A survey revealed that only 6% of companies in Japan are able to identify the provenance of their materials.
And even when routes are known, Maswana says there is no mechanism in place to hold perpetrators accountable. He points out that most companies are pretty happy, as long as things are going well. “The world has turned a blind eye to what is happening at the source to keep business going,” he says.
Hanai Kazuyo, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo and a specialist in conflict minerals, calls for much stricter regulation. She argues that those currently in place have limited effect due to smuggling, lack of oversight and corruption.
“The international community should focus more on upstream monitoring efforts, and also allocate more human and financial resources for this purpose,” she said. “In addition, companies in the electronics industry should support these efforts.”
Refugees give new life to computers
In Japan, some companies are taking heed. Among them is People Port, a Yokohama startup that wants to end addiction to conflict minerals. It was founded in 2018 and specializes in the sale of used computers. Four African asylum seekers are among the firm’s 12 staff. They all fled violence and persecution.
“Just to make a PC, so many bad things happen,” says an African staff member who wished to remain anonymous. “Because of the war, children lose their parents. I have seen the bad effects.”
Most People Port computers contain tantalum capacitors. CEO Aoyama Akihiro truly believes that refurbishing and repairing older models can help reduce the world’s reliance on conflict minerals.
People Port sells them online, as well as in pop-up stores around Tokyo. The company has traded over 3,000 units in the past two years. Aoyama says the prices — refurbished models typically cost half the price of new models — mean demand will continue to grow. He also thinks consumers are becoming more aware.
“I want people to think more about what’s behind the products and services they use, and the situations they’re connected to,” he says. “I hope the history of our PCs will become a good opportunity to think twice before making choices.”
Electric vehicles increase the demand for cobalt
The global transition to carbon neutrality is driving up demand for cobalt, an essential material in lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. The DRC accounts for around 70% of global supply and estimates indicate a six-fold increase in demand by 2040.
The country’s small, unregulated cobalt mines are notorious for human rights abuses, including the use of child labor.
Another Japanese company is developing ways to source more ethically. JX Metals Circular Solutions, located in Fukui Prefecture, has developed a method to separate high-purity cobalt from old lithium-ion batteries. The plan is to use the recycled mineral in new batteries for electric vehicles.
Breaking the cycle of violence
Maswana and Hanai know that efforts like this make a difference, but they are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the degree of human suffering. They hope to see more innovative solutions in the years to come – and above all, a much bigger push to stop the violence.
“Impunity in the DRC is one of the main reasons why these kinds of crimes have gone on for so long,” Maswana explains, meaning that if the perpetrators get away with it without being punished or penalized, they have no reason to stop. “There needs to be a legal mechanism to start breaking the cycle. Otherwise, the warlords will always find a way to funnel these conflict minerals into the global supply chain.”
The People Port team feels the same. As a small business, they are proud of the steps they have taken so far. “The amount we can refurbish may be limited,” says Aoyama, “but our product stories can convey a bigger message to help change the mindset of consumers.”