DRC is set to be a hive of mining activity with the discovery of large deposits of rare earths.
The country recently joined the East Africa Community, and this move could help it to realize its potential where minerals of rare earths are concerned.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) joined the East African Community (EAC) in March 2022 in a development that has been largely feted as positive.
This decision was reached by the heads of state of the other member countries. The BBC in a report that covered the development said that although the country had officially become a member of the regional bloc, not much would change right away. This is because at that time in March 2022 Congolese lawmakers still had to ratify the decision.
The report added that Congolese citizens looking to travel to other member countries of the East African Community had to wait a little while longer. The BBC gave the example of South Sudan which took four months to become a fully-fledged member in 2016.
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- DRC recently joined the EAC which is a move expected to help the country realize its mineral potential through regional economic cooperation.
- The DRC has the largest known deposits of rare earths which is the collective name for cobalt and lithium. These minerals which are in vogue in the DRC are critical in the transition to renewable energy as they are used in the production of solar products.
- EAC member countries share borders with the DRC except one meaning that member states will be able to trade.
DRC’s motivation for joining the bloc was and remains to improve trade and political ties with its neighbours that constitute the bloc.
Ideally being a member of a regional bloc like the EAC should improve trade and business for its member states. In the specific case of the EAC, citizens of member states can travel to any of the countries in the bloc without the need for a visa.
This ease of mobility it is said should reduce friction and restrictions when it comes to trade. For its part there is a very important geographic advantage to the DRC joining the EAC. The country shares borders with all member states save for Kenya. This means that automatically by the stroke of a pen, the DRC now has easy access for its goods to five other markets that make up the bloc. The same can be said of the countries on the other side of the border with the DRC.
South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania all share borders with the vast central African country.
According to World Bank statistics the population of the DRC stands at not less than 89.56 million as of 2020. This is a market that becomes easily available to five of the six countries by virtue of geography and the DRC’s entry into the EAC.
The benefits of the DRC joining the regional bloc are symbiotic.
DRC has as much to gain as the other six members to. For the other member states, the coming on board of the DRC means that they will have instant access to the Atlantic Ocean and the DRC itself will have easy access to the Indian Ocean. The importance of this is profound in terms of global trade and maritime access to foreign markets.
The ease of access to either ocean is not a benefit that will be appropriated immediately by any of the countries in the EAC. This is because to reach the Atlantic Ocean would imply cutting across the breadth of the DRC which is by no means a small feat. The DRC is the largest country in Sub Saharan Africa with a land mass that is approximately 2,344,858 square kilometres.
There is also little in the way of infrastructure to facilitate the movement of goods across the gigantic country to the Atlantic Ocean either by way of roads, rail or ports. The development does however, open opportunities for the development of the said infrastructure. There is enormous potential for the economic transformation for the DRC by joining the EAC. The country will automatically gain assistance from member states in terms of exploiting its vast natural resources.
Since the advent of the transition to net zero rare earths, minerals like lithium and cobalt have become en-vogue. These minerals are part of what are collectively known as critical minerals. They have earned this moniker because of their importance in helping the world transition to clean renewable energy and the departure from fossil fuels.
The DRC has vast deposits of rare earth minerals whose applications are just as vast.
Lithium is used in the manufacture of batteries that are being used to power electric vehicles. The Council on Foreign Relations states that cobalt is an essential mineral used for batteries in electric cars, computers, and cell phones. Demand for cobalt is increasing as more electric cars are sold, particularly in Europe, where governments are encouraging the sales with generous environmental bonuses.
The Council adds in article they published titled, “Why Cobalt Mining in the DRC Needs Urgent Attention”, demand for cobalt will increase fourfold by 2030 because of the electric vehicle boom. More than 70% of the world’s cobalt is produced in the DRC through methods that can be best described as artisanal. This means that there is scope for more meaningful minerals development of the cobalt mining industry in the DRC.
- DRC inclusion in the EAC gives other EAC member countries access to the Atlantic ocean if the requisite infrastructure in the DRC can be developed.
- Artisanal mining methods are still dominant in mining rare earths in the DRC. There is little to mechanization in mining activities.
- Alarm has been raised over the use of child labor in the mining of rare earths in the DRC. EAC is expected to clean up the mining image of the DRC
The New Yorker, a US publication made similar statements on the extent of the rare earths’ minerals “In June 2014, a man began digging into the soft red earth in the back yard of his house, on the outskirts of Kolwezi, a city in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the man later told neighbours, he had intended to create a pit for a new toilet. About eight feet into the soil, his shovel hit a slab of grey rock that was streaked with black and punctuated with what looked like blobs of bright-turquoise mould. He had struck a seam of heterogenite, an ore that can be refined into cobalt, one of the elements used in lithium-ion batteries. Among other things, cobalt keeps the batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric cars, from catching fire. As global demand for lithium-ion batteries has grown, so has the price of cobalt. The man suspected that his discovery would make him wealthy—if he could get it out of the ground before others did.”
Southern Congo, according to the New Yorker sits on a resource of at least 3.4 million tonnes of cobalt which is at least of half of the world’s known supply. The challenge with the present state of the rare earths mining industry is that its image is in desperate need of cleaning up and reinventing.
There have been disconcerting reports about Asian countries employing child labour in the cobalt mines.
The Business and Human Rights Center for example, once made a report that found, “The current state of child labour and human rights violations in Congo’s mining sector “is particularly critical,” a Jesuit priest told a recent House hearing looking into accusations China is exploiting children in Africa in the mining of cobalt, lithium and various rare earth minerals.”
DRC’s admission into the EAC may help eradicate this human rights problem. Member states could for example create binding treaties and conventions criminalizing employment of child labor in the cobalt and rare earths mines of the DRC.
The countries that make up the bloc may also jointly enforce the same conventions by introducing a certification process like the kind that the global diamond mining industry uses. The Kimberly Process is used to certify that diamonds that find their way to the global markets have been produced using ethical methods.
A similar certification process convention can be instituted by the EAC to avert and prevent “Blood cobalt” or “Blood rare earth minerals” finding their way to the global markets. Obviously, such a collective move will require a concerted and coordinate effort on the part of the other member states to create and enforce such conventions.