How Your Phone or iPad Funds War in The Congo

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congo2Gordon Moore who was one of the co-founders of Intel, presented a paper in 1965 in which he made the observation  that the number of components in integrated circuits (ICs) had doubled every year from the invention of the  integrated circuit (IC)  in 1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue for the forseeable future. His observation is what is known as Moore’s Law.

This law states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This trend has continued for more than half a century and is expected to continue until 2015 or 2020 or later thanks to advancements in VLSI. In simple terms, this law has two effects:

  1. Doubling of computing power  at the same cost every two years
  2. Miniaturization of circuits leading to smaller and smaller devices. Think of your phone, laptop, iPad etc. It’s astounding how far devices have come from the age of ENIAC to todays tablets that are thousands of times more powerful and many times smaller.
UPDATE (3rd June 2011): Intel announced the development of the 3D transistor that will push Moore’s law further than its expected end date of 2015. With the 3D transistor, Intel is now able to build much smaller and faster Microprocessors. See details here.

The miniaturization and increasing of computing power of ICs (under which Microprocessors fall)  means that today we have very powerful CPUs that are so small that they can pass through the eye of a sewing needle. However, electronic circuits are made up of other many components including capacitors. In layman terms a capacitor is a device that temporarily stores electric charge and in not-so-layman terms, the formula for capacitance or how much charge a capacitor can store is a function of the capacitors’ surface area.

The above fact means that a capacitors ability to store charge is a function of its size, the bigger the capacitor, the more the charge it stores and the faster it releases it. This posed a big problem because it effectively prevented miniaturization of the capacitor into small enough and effective devices like what was happening to the ICs. circuits could therefore not become smaller due to the presence of bulky capacitors on the circuit boards.

Enter Coltan
Coltan is short for Columbite-tantalite – a black tar-like mineral. When Coltan is refined it becomes a heat-resistant powder. A minute quantity of it can hold a very high electric charge. This property made it a suitable candidate for the manufacturing of miniature capacitors making them enter the miniaturization race too, for the first time, capacitors smaller than a millimeter were possible. This opened the way for design of smaller circuits because all the components were now very tiny. This in turn paved way for miniaturization of common devices such as phones, radios, music players (iPods and the likes) and recently full computing tablets such as the iPad. Advancements in Coltan refining methods and surface chemistry also mean that smaller and smaller capacitors are made everyday.

Coltan ore in the hands of a freelance miner in DRC

What connection does your mobile phone, iPod, iPad and flash disk have with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Well, This country possesses 84% of world’s Coltan deposits (Other countries with Coltan deposits are Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia and Canada). This means  nearly every electronic device in the world today contains capacitors made from Coltan that is mined in the DRC under conflict conditions. These are now dubbed “blood gadgets”.
Majority of the deposits are found in the Eastern part of DRC where there has been a constant civil war and crimes against humanity such as rape (1,100 rapes daily) and brutal killings. It is estimated that over 5.4 million people have lost their lives in this conflict.
Is this a coincidence that the only region with the richest coltan deposits is in a war zone? The answer is no.
Foreign powers fuel this war so as to easily buy the minerals at a throw away price from poor freelance miners, corporations from the west fund the militia in the Eastern DRC neighboring countries  so as to make the place ungovernable and gain easy access to the minerals.

Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and their proxy militias are the primary exploiters of coltan in the Congo. In an 18 month period Rwanda made $250 million as a result of exploitation of coltan in the Congo. Although Rwanda and Uganda possess little or no coltan, during the period of the war in the Congo, their exports escalated exponentially. For example, Rwanda’s coltan export went from less than 50 tons in 1995 to almost 250 tons in 1998. Zero Coltan was transported from the Congo to Uganda in 1998, however by 2000 151 drums were transported.

The United Nations notes in its 2010 report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Congo that the consequences of illegal exploitation has been twofold:

  1. Massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Rwandese and Ugandan military commanders and civilians
  2. The emergence of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen.

The Conflict-Free Smelter program

From April 2011, several major electronics manufacturers such as Apple, Intel, Nokia, Sony and HP agreed to back the Conflict-Free Smelter program that aims to bring more ethical responsibility to the mining of Coltan. The backing of this program by such major players will ensure that electronics makers will be prohibited from buying minerals used to fund war in DRC.

The Conflict-Free Smelter program applies to shipments of tin ore, tungsten, gold and coltan from Congo and its neighbors and demands mineral processors prove purchases don’t contribute to conflict in eastern Congo. The regulations were developed by the Washington-based Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and Global E-Sustainability Initiative in Brussels.

This is a welcome move that I hope will aid to the ending of the conflict in Eastern DRC. This is because a smilar process known as the Kimberly process has worked very well to eliminate ‘blood diamonds’ from the market and leading to peace in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I believe the ratification of the conflict free smelter program will also be a success and lead to peace in the eastern DRC.

The number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.[1] This trend has continued for more than half a century and is expected to continue until 2015 or 2020 or later.


  1. Good information …. where can we follow the Conflict Free Smelter Program? Has it been ratified yet … is it not time for an update?

  2. Has anyone that supports the conflict free mineral act considered the fact that now legitimate miners can’t sell these minerals ? Only the Congo ppl suffer from this. Rwanda and Uganda’s economy continues to benefit

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