Last year, more than one million electric vehicles were sold. By 2020, it’s likely that will rise to 4.5 million, or 5% of the global market for cars and small trucks.

Global demand for electric vehicles is accelerating.
Image: McKinsey

But some of the most significant developments in the electric car market are likely to come from China, where the market for electric vehicles grew by 72% last year, with 94% of that market owned by domestic manufacturers. And with car ownership rates less than a quarter of those in Europe, the demand for electric vehicles in China looks set to explode.

 Car sharing initiatives are helping drive electric vehicle demand in China.
Image: Reuters/China Out

People want electric vehicles for many different reasons, including ethical ones as we become increasingly aware of the impact of both climate change and air pollution. Yet the growing market for electric cars may be causing harm to people in one of the world’s most vulnerable countries.

A legacy of conflict and exploitation

Dangerous working conditions, risks to people’s health, and child labour are a huge problem in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

As a critical raw material in lithium-ion battery production, cobalt is in high demand. It is needed to power smartphones, tablets, and laptops as well as electric vehicles, but it is the latter where astronomical growth risks perpetuating misery.

Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt is found in the DRC, which is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries with a gross national income per capita of just $481.

The DRC has a history steeped in conflict stretching back to when it was a colony of Belgium. Now the country is the focus of the 21st century’s equivalent of a gold rush. Concentrated in one area (the southeastern province of Lualaba, near the border with Zambia), cobalt mining has become a source of income for many of the country’s struggling population.

Children as young as 10 are involved in cobalt mining, earning as little as $3.50-$10 a day for the dangerous and dirty work, which can involve digging underground, carrying very heavy sacks, and washing the mined cobalt in the river.

 A miner with body scars works at Gecamines concession near the centre of Lubumbashi, DRC.
Image: Reuters/Dino Mahtani CRB

Waiting for the cobalt dividend

In addition to the clear ethical problem of child labour, the conditions of the informal cobalt mines that have sprung up are creating a serious health hazard, a special report in Fortune has revealed.

Although it is present in vitamin B12 and has important benefits in moderation, too much exposure to cobalt can cause asthma, pneumonia, and heart and thyroid damage. The mines themselves tend to be little more than holes in the ground, with no suitable structural support to prevent collapse, and little or no protective clothing worn by the miners.

 Congolese diggers work in an improvised mine near the town of Kambove.
Image: Reuters/Kenny Katombe

Many in the DRC see their cobalt deposits as having parallels with oil deposits in the Middle East; if exploited properly, transformative levels of wealth could be released into the economy.

One of the major barriers to a more widespread distribution of cobalt wealth in the DRC is the involvement of foreign-owned mining companies and cobalt merchants. This has resulted in a two-tier cobalt market, where the low-paid job of extraction is left to locals, while the pricing and profit is controlled by outside interests. Yet, for all its faults – and they are legion – the cobalt market in the DRC is the only route to a regular income for many people living in abject poverty.

While tech firms and car manufacturers have pledged to do more to tackle the problem in their supply chains, there are no easy ways to tell if their batteries have been produced using cobalt mined in slave-like conditions.

The World Economic Forum's Global Battery Alliance seeks to address these thorny challenges. According to the group, "As a global collaboration platform, it will catalyse and accelerate action towards a socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and innovative battery value chain to power the Fourth Industrial Revolution."

There is talk among some in the tech sector that lithium-ion batteries need to be replaced by new technology, to avoid the problem of unethically-sourced cobalt.

For now though, soaring demand is continuing to push cobalt prices higher, which in turn ramps up production and forces more children and adults to risk their lives in the mines.