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Cobalt is the new oil

Boys go to work in the Ruashi mine near Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty

Whoever controls cobalt – a key component in electric vehicle batteries, mobile phones and much else besides – will be a “leader in the new global economy”, says Dionne Searcey in The Daily. And the place to go for cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo. The central African country has two thirds of the world’s supply, with more in its tailing piles – the mountains of waste material from mines – “than most countries have in their entire land mass”. Which is why it is at the centre of a battle for influence between the world’s two superpowers: the US and China.

For decades Congo was closer to Washington. In the 1970s, President Nixon did everything he could to keep his Congolese counterpart, Mobutu Sese Seko, happy: a state dinner at the White House, a trip to Disneyland, even a C130 cargo plane filled with bottles of Coca-Cola. But when America’s focus shifted to oil and the Middle East, China swooped in. Beijing and Congo agreed a deal in 2005: China would build up Congolese infrastructure in exchange for access to the country’s metals and minerals. Largely thanks to that agreement, which became the “blueprint” for China’s Belt and Road initiative, Chinese companies now control 15 of Congo’s 19 industrial cobalt mines.

But today the Congolese are getting “buyer’s remorse” over China. Many of the promised projects were never built; those that were completed were “shoddy”. One of the biggest Chinese miners, China Moly, was recently suspended from operating one of its mines and may be thrown out of the country altogether. The pendulum of cobalt control may yet swing back to the US.

Listen to the whole episode here.