In a small shack overlooking muddy pits hewn out of eastern Congo’s rolling green hills, a government official puts a barcoded tag on a sack of ore rich in tantalum, a rare metal widely used in smartphones.
With a handheld device linked to a server in the cloud, the agent scans the barcode, uploading data including the sealed bag’s weight, when it was tagged, and by who.
It’s the latest initiative in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to improve systems meant to show minerals entering global supply chains come from mines that don’t use child labour or fund warlords and corrupt soldiers.
The new system developed by RCS Global, a Berlin company that audits supply chains, started in January at Societe Miniere de Bisunzu’s (SMB) mine near Rubaya, which has some of Africa’s largest deposits of coltan, a tantalum-rich ore.
“It allows purchasers of SMB material to be sure it actually comes from that mine site and is not smuggled into the supply chain from other mines, as much as possible,” said Ferdinand Maubrey, a managing director at RCS.
Whether the new digital approach to tracing metals such as tantalum and cobalt succeeds is of interest to companies, especially carmakers like Tesla, General Motors and Ford as regulators on both sides of the Atlantic put pressure on end-users to prove supply chains are clean.
Currently companies mostly rely on a paper-based certification scheme. UN experts documented cases of tags used to identify clean minerals stolen and sold to smugglers – allowing them to pass off ore from blacklisted mines as responsibly sourced.
Maubrey said the new system helped prevent tainted ore being mixed in with SMB products by creating new obstacles. To use stolen tags, for example, a smuggler would need to steal the scanner and laptop linked to it – which Maubrey said would be easily detected.
Maubrey concedes the system has limitations. For one, it does not use available technology to pinpoint GPS co-ordinates of where the ore was tagged in real time, largely because of cost, he said.
SMB Chief Executive Ben Mwangachuchu said digital systems could be corrupted if government agents who tag bags conspire with smugglers to enter incorrect data.
“If they collude and say we are going to feed the information we want for our own benefit, you will never know,” he said.
Car companies and electronics firms including Apple, Samsung and IBM are under pressure to show metals used in products such as laptops, video game consoles or electric vehicle batteries are sourced responsibly.
In response to the role minerals from Congo and east African neighbours played in funding conflicts, the United States passed legislation in 2010 requiring US-listed companies to disclose whether their products contained any tantalum, tin, tungsten or gold from the region – and perform due diligence.
A similar European Union rule will take effect in 2021 and the London Metal Exchange could ban suppliers of metals not responsibly sourced by 2025.
The US Geological Survey estimates Congo produced 39% of the world’s tantalum last year.
Data from Congo’s ministry of mines shows SMB supplied ore to two smelting companies in Asia that Tesla, GM, Ford and Apple said in public filings are, or may be, in their supply chains.
Asked by Reuters for comment, Tesla did not respond, Apple declined to comment and GM and Ford both referred to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission which outline measures to promote responsible sourcing – such as support for audits of smelters.
Experts say measures adopted since 2010 helped clean up supply chains. Gaps persist.
An April report by the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Belgium and the Danish Institute for International Studies recorded interference by Congo’s military or armed militias at 28% of the 711 mine sites visited between 2016 and 2018 – including 20 monitored by the dominant responsible sourcing scheme in Congo, ITSCI.
According to the report, interference at mine sites could mean direct control by army units or militias, or indirect influence through secret taxes or ownership stakes.
Rene Masumbuko, the mine ministry’s representative for North Kivu, said armed interference at mines was rare, but conceded government agents were not able to access some rebel-held areas.
Kay Nimmo, who heads ITSCI, an International Tin Association initiative, acknowledged cases of fraud. She said ITSCI was working to improve safe storage of tags and the report found the system had made progress.
SMB turned to the new traceability scheme, the Better Mining programme, after leaving ITSCI in December.
At the SMB pit near Rubaya, miners wash ore in fast-flowing streams and haul it to the tagging point, closer to the pits for ease of monitoring.
RCS employees implementing the scheme watch government agents attach and scan tags and upload data. The exercise is repeated as the bags travel to a nearby storage site, a warehouse to be sampled and priced and on via Goma to the Indian Ocean coast for shipping to Asia.
Maubrey said RCS teams in Germany can review all the data in real time, which allows them to identify any anomalies, such as production spikes and report risks to buyers.
Other projects outside eastern Congo use more advanced technology to track minerals along complex supply chains.
In southern Congo, RCS partnered with companies including Ford and IBM to trace cobalt, a component in lithium-ion batteries. The system uses blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, to create a tamper-proof record.
London-based start-up Circulor helped map recycled cobalt in China using blockchain for Geely’s Volvo Cars this year.
Circulor monitored mines in Rwanda using smartphones armed with GPS to pinpoint where ore was tagged and facial recognition software to confirm identities of miners.
Those projects focus on less risky mines out of conflict zones, Circulor CEO Douglas Johnson-Poensgen said the innovations could be applied in eastern Congo.
ITSCI plans to introduce digital systems in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, while RCS operates its barcode system at two Rwandan mines. Both say it would be difficult to do the same in Congo due to poor infrastructure and high costs.
The certification schemes limited resources as funding comes mainly from members – predominantly miners, traders and smelters – rather than the wealthy multinationals which ultimately use Congo’s minerals.
“Downstream companies and industry groups are unwilling to pay to support measures improving working conditions at mine sites,” said Maubrey at RCS.
Johnson-Poensgen declined to say how much Circulor’s projects cost but he said pricing was skewed towards manufacturers further down the supply chain who most need to demonstrate responsible sourcing.
Major users of Congolese minerals did not respond to Reuters questions about whether they would be willing to pay more for better, more advanced, secure traceability schemes.