The Origins of Your Smartphone Battery: Story About Congolese Hand-Miners
Wed, 17 Oct 2018 || By Ahmad Najmi Ramadhani

       In 2007, Apple revolutionized the industry of mobile phone by launching the first generation of iPhones, also known as the first smartphone. In the first year the smartphone was on the market, Apple succeeds to sell almost 1.4 million units of iPhone worldwide. Ten years later, Apple reported more than $54 billion in revenue from 216.76 million units sold in 2017[1]. At the same time, on the other industry, Electric Vehicles (EVs) shows increasing demand in China, Europe, and the United States as illustrated in Figure 1[2].

origins of your smartphone battery

Figure 1 The new registrations of EVs is increasing in China, Europe, and the United States. Source: McKinsey & Company.

       The increasing demand for smartphones and EVs caused the multinational company to manage its supply chain more efficient. One alteration that significantly changes the game is when the multinational company started to use lithium-ion batteries. The main ingredient of lithium-ion batteries is cobalt that is supposed to be better for the environment. They are different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past, that is lead-acid batteries. In each electric car, there are 10 to 20 pounds of cobalt (like 2 to 3 gallons of milk). While in each smartphone there are 5 to 10 grams of cobalt[3]. The smartphone industry used a quarter of global cobalt production for its raw material[4]. This condition pushed the demand of cobalt more than 300K Tons in 2030[5].

       Two-thirds of cobalt supplies come from the Democratic Republic of Congo – a rough country with a long history of corrupt government and foreign exploitation[6]. In 2016, Washington Post released a shocking featured report about the cobalt pipeline. According to the report, there are more than 100,000 Congolese miners who dig cobalt using their bare hand without safety gear, maps, or heavy industrial equipment[7]. Miners stay underground of the tunnel for hours, working as long as they can. Sometimes they even sleep underground where methane or other dangerous gases may appear. In 2007, U.S. Agency for International Development found 4,000 children worked at mining sites in Kolwezi, a mining area in Congo[8]. This raises the issue of children labor that is against ethical conduct of any industries. Since the number of schools in Congo is also very limited, the problem of child labor is quite complicated to be resolved.

origins of your smartphone battery

Figure 2 The pipeline of cobalt. Source: The Washington Post.

       Miners make an average of $2 or $3 a day[9]. They sell their cobalt at small shops that will hand over the cobalt to big companies such as the Congo DongFang International Mining (CDM), part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. It is important to note that about 90 percent of China’s cobalt comes from Congo[10]. This is the point where the small actor of a supply chain (small-scale mining by hand) meet the prominent actor of a supply chain (CDM and Huayou Cobalt). However, this condition always positioned small actor as inferior with zero amount of bargaining position in the face of the prominent actor. It will lead to sustainable cheap labor. Profitable for the big actor, but harmful for the small actor. The Cobalt then processed to become cathode and then battery, and then end up on our smartphone as a rechargeable power source.

       In early 2017, Amnesty International and other human rights group put an accusation against Apple for this case[11]. They have connected the unfair trade, exercised by the Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt whose cobalt are used in Apple products like iPhone. The public demands Apple to fix its supply chain from the dangerous mining practice and the use of child labor. However, to Apple’s defense, Apple is a buyer of batteries, not a buyer of battery component. In trying to resolve this issue, recently, Apple had planned to buy cobalt directly from the supplier, the hand-miners of Congo instead from the big companies. This plan let Apple apply their standards of a clean supply chain to the miners. Nonetheless, this plan is seen as a hard-executable plan because the middleman, CDM and Huayou Cobalt, had strongly established their influence on the people and government of Congo. Another way, leaving Congo is not an option. It would only leave the Congolese people in a devastating position.

       The unfair practice and dangerous condition the miners had to bear for the low cost of the end-product in the consumers’ hands is against the main idea of ethical buying. In the principle of ethical consumption, or sometimes called ‘moral boycott’, customers will highly prefer goods that are produced ethically and responsibly. This explains why Apple is proposing a plan to purchase the cobalt from the Congolese hand-miners directly—showcasing its good initiatives against act of unfair trade. Nonetheless, markets are being shaped by the number of supply and demands. In the end, it is up to the consumers and the manufacturers to end.

Editor: Treviliana Eka Putri

Read another article written by Ahmad Najmi Ramadhani


[1] Statista. (2018). Apple iPhone sales by the year 2007-2017. [online] Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/276306/global-apple-iphone-sales-since-fiscal-year-2007/ [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[2] Hertzke, P., Müller, N. and Schenk, S. (2018). Dynamics in the global electric-vehicle market. [online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/dynamics-in-the-global-electric-vehicle-market [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[3] Frankel, T. (2016). THE COBALT PIPELINE: Tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers’ phones and laptops. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/ [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[4] Farchy, J. and Gurman, M. (2018). Apple in Talks to Buy Cobalt Directly from Miners. [online] Bloomberg.com. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-21/apple-is-said-to-negotiate-buying-cobalt-direct-from-miners [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Frankel, T. (2016). THE COBALT PIPELINE: Tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers’ phones and laptops. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/ [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kolwezi Economic Development and Governance Transition Strategy. (2007). [online] p.20. Available at: http://dmeforpeace.org/sites/default/files/Kolwezi_Economic_Development_and_Gov...Final_.pdf [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[9] Frankel, T. (2016). THE COBALT PIPELINE: Tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers’ phones and laptops. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/ [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Frankel, T. (2017). Apple cracks down further on cobalt supplier in Congo as child labor persists. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/03/03/apple-cracks-down-further-on-cobalt-supplier-in-congo-as-child-labor-persists/?utm_term=.eb151bf35d78 [Accessed 21 Sep. 2018].