Digging Deeper

After cobalt was discovered beneath one neighborhood, Congolese began digging under their houses. Some tunnels extended into neighbors’ properties. Illustration by Pola Maneli

Nicolas Niarchos appeared in our pages in 2017 with two short form and inherently pleasant stories. Now he is in full force with a longform account of the impacts new technologies are having on the ground, or rather in the ground, in one of Africa’s more fragile countries:

The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush

Cell phones and electric cars rely on the mineral, causing a boom in demand. Locals are hunting for this buried treasure—but are getting almost none of the profit.

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 neighbors, he had intended to create a pit for a new toilet. About eight feet into the soil, his shovel hit a slab of gray rock that was streaked with black and punctuated with what looked like blobs of bright-turquoise mold. 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. Continue reading