You’d think that $24 trillion would be enough for anyone. Even $300,000 would be a good sum, which is what the 80 million citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo would receive if all of the minerals in their country were sold and the money shared between them. And if that were to happen, they could receive something even more valuable. They might just get peace.
Congo is a major source of four minerals that you use every day. Tantalum helps your mobile phone to store electricity. Tungsten makes it vibrate. Tin is used to solder the components, and gold (yes, gold) coats the wiring.
The problem is that those four minerals are dug out of mines in the Congo that are controlled and taxed by armed gangs. They’re then smuggled out of the country along routes that are also controlled and taxed by armed gangs. Those gangs act like mafias that use rape as a weapon and employ children in the most dangerous jobs. From the coasts of Africa, the minerals are shipped to smelters in Asia where they’re mixed with minerals from other countries and later turned into components used in mobile phones, tablets and computers, including the one you’re using now.
So the phone that you bought from the Apple Store or some other electronics shop could well have helped to make the worst people in Africa rich and regular folk in one of the world’s poorest countries even more miserable.
And you wouldn’t know anything about it. There’s no way that any of us can know how much “conflict minerals” were used in our phones. The minerals are usually untraceable and there’s no certification for conflict-free components.
Things may change in Congo. Elections are due to take place in November. The main contenders are Moïse Katumbi, a tycoon with his own soccer team and the former governor of one of the country’s most important regions, and Joseph Kabila, the current President who may change the constitution in order to stay in office. Also running, however, is Emmanuel Weyi, the CEO and founder of Groupe Weyi International, a fairtrade mining company. Based in Denver, Colorado for the last twenty years, Weyi also has a background in non-profits; he founded the Colorado Sickle Cell Foundation in 2005.
Some organizations are also trying to make sure that at least their devices won’t feed money back to Congo’s warlords. Fairphone is a Dutch social enterprise that makes a mobile phone whose materials are traceable. The parts are modular so that they can be replaced easily, and the specifications are comparable to a high-end Android device: a Snapdragon 801 processor; 32 GB internal storage, expandable with an SD card; two sim slots; a five-inch screen; and an 8 megapixel main camera. The device costs just under 530 Euros (about $590) so it’s not cheap, but even at that price, it’s already managed to sell more than 60,000 units.
The question for entrepreneurs is how much should we be aware of the sources of our products? Apple and Samsung occasionally have to answer questions about the conditions of their workforce but few of us are grilled that intensively. We can’t expect customers to research every component that we use. They trust us to do that for them, and we have a responsibility to do so.
I’m always telling entrepreneurs that they should “do good stuff.” That doesn’t just refer to the quality of the product; it’s a mantra for how we make our products and how we run our businesses.