The state-owned company created to buy all of Democratic Republic of Congo’s hand-dug cobalt could start operating within three months after years of delays, according to its chief executive officer.
Entreprise Generale du Cobalt will soon launch pilot sites around the town of Kolwezi on parts of five mining permits belonging to its main shareholder, state-miner Gecamines, Eric Kalala said.
“The problem before was that we didn’t have any land, but that problem has been solved,” Kalala told Bloomberg News on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town on Wednesday. The company doesn’t yet have an offtake agreement for the electric-vehicle battery metal, which will be dug by small-scale, artisanal miners working with EGC-approved cooperatives.
Congo founded EGC in 2019 to formalize artisanal cobalt mining, which employs hundreds of thousands of people but is infamous for dangerous working conditions and child labor. The company has struggled to get off the ground amid disagreements about its structure and weak cobalt prices due to oversupply.
The low prices offer an “opportunity” to set up the company with less competition on the ground from other buyers, with the aim of being ready to capitalize when the market turns, Kalala said.
In theory, EGC could be a major player in global cobalt, 70% of which comes from Congo. The country’s artisanal miners can account for as much as 20% of national output, according to the company.
Congo exported 139,800 tons of cobalt last year, a 21% increase from 2022. Total world production was about 190,000 tons in 2022, according to US Geological Survey estimates.
Commodity trader Trafigura Group is still EGC’s “main partner” in the project, but “bilateral discussions” continue with other parties, Kalala said.
“Trafigura remains committed to its commercial agreement with EGC and delivering on the pressing need to kick-start the large-scale formalization” of the artisanal and small-scale cobalt sector, Trafigura said by email.
“At present Trafigura is the only company permitted to buy from EGC – we encourage others to follow our approach and contribute towards meaningful change,” the Singapore-based company said.
Incursions by artisanal miners pose risks for private miners across Congo, and EGC is “designing a legal solution” that could allow it to operate on parts of permits owned by companies like Glencore and Eurasian Resources Group, Kalala said.
ERG didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Glencore declined to comment.
(By William Clowes and Michael J. Kavanagh)