Blockchain technology to monitor Congo's cobalt supply chain

The blockchain technology will be used for the first time to track cobalt's journey from its artisanal mines in Democratic Republic of Congo all the way through to its various products that are used in smartphones and electric cars.

The blockchain technology has found yet another real world application — tracking the journey of cobalt from artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo to electronic devices. Cobalt is commonly used in lithium-ion batteries that power products such as iPhones and Teslas. The project started as a way to ensure that cobalt isn't being mined by children.

The origin of the cobalt initiative:

Ordinarily, tracking cobalt would present so many challenges that most companies wouldn’t even bother getting near to. All aspects of the supply chain would have to be involved—the mines, the logistics directors, the device manufacturers themselves, etc.

However, companies are under increasing pressure, from both customers and investors, to demonstrate that their cobalt is sourced from “pure” avenues. This means that no human rights violations took place at any point along the supply chain.

This noble initiative recently took form in China, where several businesses started the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which partners with tech giants such as Apple and Samsung to address child labor concerns.

The blockchain pilot for cobalt’s supply chain:

The team wants to track cobalt for the whole duration of its journey through a blockchain. The developers hope that at bare minimum, their blockchain can track the mined cobalt through the “trouble stages” of the supply chain, including mining and logistics centers.

Blockchains could help companies trace payments to middlemen and identify certain red flags. What’s more, because they are decentralized, blockchains can’t be controlled by Congo’s government and business sectors. 

How would the tracking work?

The pilot program will give each bag of mined cobalt a digital tag that is recorded onto the blockchain via a mobile phone. The vetted miner who uploads the tag will also include details like the date, time, and possibly a photo.

Next, the trader who buys the bag would also record the details of the transaction onto the blockchain. This process will continue until the ore gets to the smelter, creating an immutable, auditable record of every stop the bag makes. According to those working on the pilot program, organizations will provide on-the-ground monitors to make sure that mining sites aren’t using child labor throughout the supply chain.

The idea of using the blockchain technology to help track metals like cobalt has received support from institutions such as the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). Tom Butler, the CEO of ICMM, notes, “The blockchain technology does not solve the whole problem, but it solves a big part of the problem.”

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