Data Sheet—Explaining Congo’s Cobalt ‘Curse’

August 23, 2018, 12:43 PM UTC
Political protest in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Supporters of former war chief and ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and his party 'Mouvement de liberation du Congo' (MLC) wait in front of the party's office in Gemena, Democratic Republic of Congo, on July 30, 2018, as he is expected to return to the country after an 11-year absence ahead of December polls. - Bemba, 55, was acquitted in June 2018 of war-crimes charges in The Hague. He has vowed to return to Kinshasa on August 1 to file his election bid. Candidates must physically be in the country to lodge their applications. His party previously said that he would arrive in Gemena, a town in his stronghold of the northwest, on July 31. But on July 30 it said he had not had flight authorisation for landing there. (Photo by Junior D. KANNAH / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo credit: JUNIOR D. KANNAH AFP/Getty Images

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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.


Feeling droopy. In the latest twist on drones and AI, IBM filed a patent for an autonomous flying vehicle that could deliver hot beverages to "those who appear to be in a 'pre-determined cognitive state' requiring coffee." Sign me up.

TKO. After last month rejecting the Winklevoss brothers concept for a bitcoin exchange-traded fund, the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday offered similar reasons in nixing proposed digital currency funds from investment firms ProShares, GraniteShares, and Direxion. The requests failed to show how such funds could "prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices," the agency wrote.

Cleaning up the block. Under fire for failing to adequately police third-party apps on its service in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook permanently banned the personality quiz app myPersonality. Facebook said myPersonality’s creators refused to cooperate with an audit of how they protected and shared app gathered by the app.

Shutterbug shift. Back in April, we mentioned that the two titans of photography, Canon and Nikon, were in danger of being disrupted by a new camera technology known as mirrorless. On Thursday, Nikon finally tried to match competitors with a couple of high-end mirrorless cameras of its own. The new $3,400 Z7 and $2,000 Z6 are said to be smaller and quieter than Nikon's comparable traditional DSLR models. In a first impressions review, photog site DPReview found the Z7 to be "a pretty well-rounded do-everything camera."

Under pressure. Stealthy self-driving car startup Zoox fired its CEO Tim Kentley-Klay. The co-founder tweeted that his board moved against him "without warning, cause or right of reply." Zoox raised $500 million last month in a deal valuing the company at $3.2 billion.

Judging by the cover. As initially announced earlier this year, Walmart jumped into the declining ebook market on Wednesday, launching an online store in partnership with e-reader maker Kobo. Publishers set ebook prices and a quick check showed Walmart's prices were identical to Amazon's prices in its Kindle ebook store. James Patterson's recent best seller Texas Rangers is $15 in both stores, while Jodi Picoult's 2016 novel Small Great Things is $4, for example.

Chinese clicks. Speaking of retailing giants, Alibaba reported its revenue jumped 61% to $12.2 billion last quarter though adjusted earnings per share rose only 1% to $1.22. Both figures were slightly better than Wall Street expected. The company said it reached 576 million annual active customers in China, 4% more than a year earlier. Alibaba shares, up a measly 3% so far this year, gained another 4% in premarket trading on Thursday.


The 2016 U.S. elections were attacked by Russian hacking efforts on multiple levels. Signs of continued attacks by the Russians to affect 2018 races are in the news daily. Now Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Yahoo and Facebook, is sounding off about the risks to coming elections. Stamos takes personal responsibility for his role in failing to fight off the prior attacks and offers some suggestions for improving security in the future. But it's not a reassuring read, as Stamos rips into the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as Congress, for their feeble responses so far.

The fundamental flaws in the collective American reaction date to summer 2016, when much of the information being reported today was in the hands of the executive branch. Well before Americans went to the polls, U.S. law enforcement was in possession of forensics from the hacks against the Democratic National Committee; important metadata from the GRU’s spear-phishing of John Podesta and other high-profile individuals; and proactive reports from technology companies. Following an acrimonious debate inside the White House, as reported by the New York Times’s David Sanger, President Obama rejected several retaliatory measures in response to Russian interference—and U.S. intelligence agencies did not emerge with a full-throated description of Russia’s meddling until after the election.

If the weak response of the Obama White House indicated to America’s adversaries that the U.S. government would not respond forcefully, then the subsequent actions of House Republicans and President Trump have signaled that our adversaries can expect powerful elected officials to help a hostile foreign power cover up attacks against their domestic opposition. The bizarre behavior of the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Devin Nunes, has destroyed that body’s ability to come to any credible consensus, and the relative comity of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has not yet produced the detailed analysis and recommendations our country needs. Although by now Americans are likely inured to chronic gridlock in Congress, they should be alarmed and unmoored that their elected representatives have passed no legislation to address the fundamental issues exposed in 2016.


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Amid rampant climate change and weakening environmental regulations, one piece of good news about the planet: the amount of forests worldwide has actually increased over the past 35 years. A new study finds that deforestation in the Amazon and other tropical regions was outpaced by increasing tree cover in other regions, particularly in Russia, China, and the United States. So at least we'll have more shade to hide under for these increasingly hot summer days.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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