What's Coltan and what's it got to do with my mobile phone?

  • Written by  Clive

We tend to lose sight of or are blissfully unaware of the fact that thousands of people are dying and millions live in misery as a result of Coltan mining. Coltan is a metallic ore mined mainly in Africa and Brazil and is used in the manufacture of capacitors which are found in almost every electronic device, including computers, tablets and mobile phones.

There is a lot of Coltan mining in the Congo which is rich in widely scattered surface deposits. Unfortunately the deposits do not warrant economical mechanical mining, hence the labor intensive artisanal mines. It has changed the way of life for millions of its poor inhabitants. Peasant farmers have been forced to leave their land because of crop failures, conflict and the lure of higher returns in the mines. Originally starting out as small artisanal operations these have now been commandeered by warlords and thugs and turned into slave labour camps.

The ore is mined by hand and then carried on the backs of porters, who march for days through the forests to central locations. From there it is smuggled into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda and then shipped out to the electronics industries of the west and China, finally finding its way into our laptops, tablets and mobile phones.

Moves have been made to encourage end users of Coltan to ensure that they purchase their raw materials from credible sources. This effort hopes to put an end to the ruthless exploitation of the people caught up in the Coltan conflict.


What can we do?

  • Recycle electronic goods so that the Coltan can be reused
  • Be selective in the products that you buy. Buy only from companies that do not use conflict Coltan
  • Spread the word about conflict Coltan

Some facts about Coltan

  • Found in almost all consumer electronic products
  • Used in smart bomb guidance controls
  • Central Africa supplies about 25% of the world’s market
  • Also mined in Australia, Canada, Brazil, Mozambique
  • Bulk used by manufacturers in India and China
  • Black market started in Central America after discoveries of Coltan in the Amazon jungle (area bordering Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia)
  • No accurate way of identifying illegal Coltan once it’s in the supply chain

Have a look at this inspiring TED video on Coltan and mobile phones by Bandi Mbubi: