Laura and Sylvain in the DRC - A Diary

Our team members Laura and Sylvain are in the DRC this week. They will be visiting mines and talking to local partners about cobalt. This element makes up most of the Fairphones battery and its sourcing is connected to many problems.

They have a very full schedule, but they try to keep a diary for us. I will relay their messages and pictures here into the forum so you all can have a first account of what they are doing!

Day 1

We landed at Nairobi airport early in the morning (5am) after traveling the whole night and without much sleep (Superman vs Batman is such a good movie). We felt pretty tired actually, but happy to feel this hot and moisty Kenyan weather, and to assist to the Kenyan sunrise #HakunaMatata.

From Nairobi we took another plane, this time to Lubumbashi.

The flight had an unexpected stop at the Zambian border (Ndola) where almost everybody went out of the plane except us. A small airport with only one landing site but a huge Samsung ad about their last huge flex TV.

While arriving over Lubumbashi we saw a really extended city of around 4 millions inhabitants, that looks ten times bigger as Amsterdam.

Tomorrow we plan to visit the refinery of a high profile Chinese cobalt refiner in the area. This meeting is an interesting first encounter with a potential future partner to set-up a cobalt supply chain.

The dry season started here in Lubumbashi, but surprisingly it keeps raining…

Day 2

Greetings from Lubumbashi, everything goes well here, even if we might be lacking some sleep and are really busy. We did not write anything this day as we visited in the morning the biggest Cobalt smelter and buyer in the region, but photos were not allowed.

Day 3

This morning we joined at 7.00 am a group of local actors and partners composed of international cooperation bodies, private companies, civil society and official government representatives to realize different field visits. We went first to a large scale mine. We could see a huge pit of copper and cobalt being exploited, and then the semi industrial infrastructure where they crush and filter the cobalt and copper to have a better concentration (removing the waste).

Entering the dirty and crappy smelting facility we had a weird sensation on our lungs, feeling the strong use of chemicals in this process. The company did not allow us to take pictures…

In the afternoon we went to a smaller mine pit of cobalt and copper, exploited by artisan miners (creuseurs). There we could access a smaller but impressive pit accompanied by around 40 miners and 4 armed policemen. A trading center was close to the mine with the prices made public.

Weirdly enough Laura and other women were not allowed to enter the site. They say the quality of the minerals might go down when women enter the mine site…

Tomorrow we will travel to Kolwezi (a city at 4 hours ride) to meet the regional minister of mines, among others.


Day 4

We left around 6am in a convoy of three cars to the town of Kolwezi (Lualaba Province in the West of Lubumbashi), four hours ride on one of the few paved roads in Katanga.

There, we joined other local actors to gather together at an artisanal or small scale mine at two more hours driving (arriving at mid day). Exploited for the last ten years by creuseurs, (diggers). This is indeed a very artisanal mining site: manual work without many safety measures nor equipment or decent payments for their hard work. But also crucial for local income.

We felt sandy, and quite struck by the complicated nature of the situation and way to go.

In the afternoon we quickly stopped on the road back to Lubumbashi where many many comptoirs opened to buy the production from the creuseurs. Prices are low and negotiations limited for the creuseurs.

We were overwhelmed by people gathering around us, curious about the Fairphone battery, but worried about the negative publicity about their activity that might close down their activity and leave them without any source of income.

Day 5

We visited the concession of a large scale mine (LSM) in the surroundings of Lubumbashi. We could see their biggest mining pit where they extract copper only. Then we saw all the steps to crush, grind and leach the copper ore until it becomes a copper cathode with a 99,99% concentration of copper.

This is truly a complete other world then the small scale mining we saw yesterday, with high security and health & safety procedures. But at the same time a far bigger impact on the environment and landscape of the area. We were happy that we successfully passed all the mandatory alcohol tests that are required at all LSM entrances. :wink:

In the afternoon we visited a huge smelter factory processing the cobalt and copper remaining in a waste heap from the former state company, GĂ©camines.

The temperature in the smelting plant is high and a bit suffocating, passing by huge ovens heated up to 1.400C.


Dear Sylvain,
thanks a lot for sharing some of your experiences from this exciting trip!

In the past years years I have been visiting a couple of mining sites, both large scale as well as artisanal mines, in an entirely different region, in the Arctic, and thus I am not sure to what extend my experiences can be comparable.
Despite the obvious huge impact of large mining sites, I am not convinced though whether they actually have a bigger impact on the environment. At least in the case of the Arctic, small or artisanal mines are often scattered in the landscape. Yet, people have to bring their equipment to these - mostly remote - sites, and of course also transport the minerals or metals (talking here mainly about gold or diamonds) back to the markets. Thus, they is much more transportation involved then in centralized, large scale mining operations, damaging the fragile ecosystems but also emitting pollution and noise. Moreover, at all these scattered sites there is also noise emitted, which disturbs wildlife over a large area, other than a big mine, that can easier be avoided by wild life. So I think, considering the same amount of production from scattered artisanal mines compared to large mining sites, I doubt that large scale sites have a bigger environmental impact over all.
Another interesting aspect I have observed is that often large sites are operated by international corporations, following their international guidelines, incl. health & safety measures. Such measures are often new to these regions where mining sites are getting established, and may spill over to other sectors in the economy, e.g. in tourism, or also in supply industries (often even as requirement). Thus, these newly implemented health and safety measures may increase living conditions for employees and other parts of the local population, beyond the mines themselves.

So by no means I am a fan of big mining sites, yet I do think that there can also be benefits over artisanal mining, especially in regard to environmental as well as social impacts. Of course it would be much better to reduce the demand for these resources. I am glad Fairphone is giving serious weight to this important challenge!

Thanks a lot for sharing your interesting experiences, and have a good trip!


Day 6 & 7

We spent the last two days in a multi-stakeholders workshop in Lubumbashi gathering local and national authorities, small and large scale mining actors, local and international civil society, as well as Fairphone!
We are a bit tired after the previous days of travel. But interesting and challenging to see all these different actors gathering together and openly expressing rich points of view.

After the previous days on the field, we did our best to hide our sun burns during this two-day workshop inside a hotel reception room.

For the next three days, we will keep visiting local actors and other mine sites in the province of Lualaba (East from Lubumbashi) to complete our research. We keep looking for local partners that we could accompany in the improvement of their extractive supply chain of cobalt. We will be accompanied by a 5-people documentary crew coming from Austria. They follow a few organisations / initiatives - including Fairphone - that are highlighted as examples of the economy based on fairer principles.

Day 8

We are now accompanied by a documentary team (5 people) from Austria, following us in our research about sourcing of cobalt. Between the traveling time in two cars and all the required authorizations of filming for the crew, we could not film much in the first two days. They interviewed us and we could carry on some meetings for Fairphone’s research in the meantime.

We woke up at 5 am to drive early with the two cars to go the shore of a lake close to Kolwezi to shoot some images and interviews about our filed trip. The clouds in the early morning impeded us to get the magic light we were dreaming of. We later visited different projects (schools, infrastructures) with local authorities that are financed thanks to the taxation on mining activities. The development of schools is directly linked to avoid children in the mines.

In the afternoon we went to our last mine site visit, this time accompanied by the Minister of Mines of the Province. We could visit a rather different model: in between a large scale (industrial) mine and a complete artisanal one. Organized under a cooperative, around 600-700 members, both creuseurs, technical employees and buyers work on former industrial site. This small scale mine (artisanal mining with use of some machinery) has a better control of how enter the mine with identity controls (no children), prices (they have their own material) and transformation (grinding and washing on site). This intermediate situation shows concretely what the formalisation of the artisanal sector might look like.

Once again, women where not accepted on site, so Laura had to stay in the entrance. That is a bit upsetting…

Tomorrow we leave at 5.00 am to Lubumbashi by car (4 hours), and then we are ready for 20 hours trip flight back to Amsterdam!

By the way, they have really high-tech robots doing to traffic in Lubumbashi!


And here comes a recap of our field visit in April 2017where we travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore the supply chain behind cobalt, a critical material for the production of our battery:


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