In a small shack overlooking muddy pits hewn out of eastern Congo’s rolling green hills, a government official puts a barcoded tag on a sack of ore rich in tantalum, a rare metal widely used in smartphones. With a handheld device linked to a server in the cloud, the agent scans the barcode, uploading data including the sealed bag’s weight, when it was tagged, and by whom.
It’s the latest initiative in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to improve systems meant to show minerals entering global supply chains come from mines that don’t use child labor or fund warlords and corrupt soldiers.
The new system developed by RCS Global, a company in Berlin that audits supply chains, started in January at Societe Miniere de Bisunzu’s (SMB) mine near Rubaya, which has some of Africa’s largest deposits of coltan, a tantalum-rich ore.
“It allows purchasers of SMB material to be sure that it actually comes from that mine site and is not smuggled into the supply chain from other mines, as much as possible,” said Ferdinand Maubrey, a managing director at RCS.
Whether the new digital approach to tracing metals such as tantalum and cobalt succeeds is of keen interest to companies, especially carmakers like Tesla, General Motors and Ford, as regulators on both sides of the Atlantic put pressure on end-users to prove their supply chains are clean.
Now, companies mostly rely on a paper-based certification scheme. But U.N. experts have documented cases of tags used to identify clean minerals being stolen in another part of eastern Congo and sold to smugglers – allowing them to pass off ore from blacklisted mines as responsibly sourced.
Maubrey said the new system had helped prevent tainted ore being mixed in with SMB’s products by creating new obstacles. To use stolen tags, for example, a smuggler would also need to steal both the scanner and the laptop linked to it – which Maubrey said would be easily detected.
Even so, Maubrey conceded the system has limitations. For one, it does not use available technology to pinpoint the GPS coordinates of where the ore was tagged in real time, largely because of the high costs involved, he said.
SMB Chief Executive Ben Mwangachuchu also said digital systems could be corrupted if the government agents who tag bags conspire with smugglers to enter incorrect data from the outset.