The Democratic Republic of Congo is the source of cobalt needed for batteries in everything from iPhones to Tesla sedans.
Photo credit: JUNIOR D. KANNAH AFP/Getty Images
By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
August 23, 2018

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The world is a complicated place, and a perfect example is the damned-if-they-stay, damned-if-they-leave conundrum faced by buyers of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The DRC is a poor nation in central Africa, whose southern region is the largest supplier in the world of cobalt. The metal, in turn, is critical for making lithium-ion batteries, which are crucial for smartphones as well as electric cars. That should be a blessing for the DRC. But in a classic case of the “resource curse,” instead the country is impoverished, corrupt, and exploited. Children too often mine its cobalt, particularly in “artisanal” mines that are tough for the government or corporations to monitor.

The corporate conundrum, as described by Fortune’s Vivienne Walt in her richly reported new feature, is that buying DRC cobalt can taint the reputation of manufacturers while not buying DRC cobalt only punishes minors, youths and adults alike.

This is business journalism at its finest. Walt braves hostile local authorities to get this important story. Users of shiny Apple iPhones and shinier still Tesla cars don’t often stop to think of where the components in the toys come from. But the companies do. Apple is trying to train locals to do jobs other than mining. Meantime, Western battery manufacturers are facing off against Chinese producers, who dominate the DRC cobalt trade.

I hope you’ll spend some time with this important story and its vivid photographs.

Adam Lashinsky
@adamlashinsky
adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

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