Trouble in the Congo: The Misadventures of Glencore – by Franz Wild, Vernon Silver and William Clowes (Bloomberg News – November 16, 2018)

What a time to own the world’s most valuable cobalt mine, and to have to fight to keep it.

A dozen years ago the future of technology bounced out of a remote corner of Africa on the back of a truck, along with a world of potential trouble. Both, embodied in the same load of rock, landed in the hands of Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive officer of Glencore Plc, the world’s largest middleman for the raw materials that fuel, feed, and underpin civilization.

Glasenberg’s obsession was copper, because China’s appetite for it was insatiable, with copper wire electrifying the nation’s rising cities and running through the appliances its factories sold to the West. The metal’s price had quadrupled in less than three years, triggering a global frenzy. Miners blasted it from Chilean mountaintops and dug it from the African earth as fast as they could.

At a processing plant in Zambia, Glencore was buying up all the ore containing copper it could get its hands on when technicians noticed something extraordinary. One trader consistently rolled in with rocks showing levels of purity that were off the charts—not just for copper, but also for the blue metal cobalt.

Glencore’s men asked the trader to take them to the source, and Glasenberg joined the contingent that trekked to the site some weeks later. The trader led them up a bumpy track of red earth that crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo and led to a meadow covered with bluish-purple flowers. Locals dug up rocks by hand and shoveled them into threadbare sacks. The place was called Mutanda.

In 2007, Glencore bought a large stake in Mutanda, assumed operational control, and fenced off the property. The subsistence miners who were locked out had unwittingly discovered the richest vein of cobalt on earth. Cobalt is essential for the batteries that power electric vehicles and our ubiquitous mobile devices, and Congo produces two-thirds of the world’s supply—it’s the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle age, in the words of one analyst.

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