Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Power supply: mining for an ethical battery

A man digs through mine waste searching for leftover cobalt, one of 130,000 small-scale diggers trying to scratch a living from the DRC’s rich earth A man digs through mine waste searching for leftover cobalt, one of 130,000 small-scale diggers trying to scratch a living from the DRC’s rich earth
18 Nov
A global boom in battery usage over the coming century has raised concerns about the ethics and practices behind mining cobalt and other essential minerals

From current cutting-edge technology such as smartphones and electric cars, to the potential high-tech mainstays of the near-future such as home energy storage or electric airplanes, the unfolding electricity revolution means that battery usage is powering up in a big way. Analysts estimate the global market for batteries to be worth $100billion by 2025, with rechargeable batteries expecting to account for $77billion of that figure.

This rapid growth is resulting in a significant demand for metals such as cobalt, an essential component in the production process for lithium-ion batteries. Recent analysis from the CRU Group, consultants for the global mining, metals and fertiliser markets, forecasts a substantial market deficit in cobalt supply this year with overall demand expected to exceed 100,000 tonnes.

However, with the majority of cobalt being sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where governance is especially weak, major concerns are being raised regarding the human rights and environmental standards of the cobalt supply chain.

This is especially concerning given the significant role of small-scale, unregulated ‘artisanal’ mining. An Amnesty International report from January 2016 found as many as 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners to be supplying around 20 per cent of the cobalt exported from the DRC. ‘These artisanal miners,’ reads the report, ‘referred to as creuseurs in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold.’

This scenario is what prompted the recent formation of the Global Battery Alliance, a team of technology, mining, manufacturing, and energy businesses, international organisations (such as the African Development Bank), and NGOs, all aspiring to significantly improve standards throughout the entire cobalt supply chain.

‘The smartphone that you have in your pocket right now – nobody can tell you that it is an entirely child-free or environmentally clean piece of kit, in terms of the battery within it,’ says Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership at the World Economic Forum, and overseer of the launch and growth of the Global Battery Alliance. ‘There are seven billion smartphones in the world at the moment, with numbers set to rise. So it touches right into our lives on a day-to-day basis, and one can easily follow that back down the value chain.’

It is hoped that by establishing a public-private fund to support resource-constrained grassroots observers on the ground in the DRC, the Global Battery Alliance can help scale up its efforts to create a more transparent chain, squeezing out artisanal miners, and making it possible to feed the world’s growing demand for electronics with what would currently be viewed as niche ‘ethical’ batteries.

This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.