More than mining: Supporting economic opportunity in the Congo with clean energy
Google is committed to working with communities and authorities toward conflict-free mining. And as we do, we are also invested in helping to ensure that people living in the region have additional economic options.
By collaborating with a range of local and global partners, stakeholders, and researchers, we aspire to help support burgeoning economic opportunities for Congolese communities through clean energy.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the 11th-largest country in the world by area, with an estimated population of 84 million people. Its earth is rich with copper, diamonds, tin, tantalum, tungsten, cobalt, and gold—all of which are integral to the electronics industry. Yet reliable access to energy in the DRC is scarce. In fact, the country has one of the lowest electrification rates: 19% in urban areas, just 1% in rural areas, and 9% in total.
Energy goes beyond turning on the lights. It’s about creating new possibilities, empowering people to pursue diverse livelihoods, and strengthening communities. In developing countries, ready access to energy can help advance literacy, economic opportunity, and social equality.
Because a lack of power limits the number of ways to make a living in the DRC, many Congolese communities revolve around the mining industry. While several tungsten, tin, and tantalum mines have made progress in supply chain transparency and due diligence, many artisanal gold mines are controlled by different, and often opposing, armed groups that contribute to much of the country’s violence.
Like virtually all consumer electronics, many Google products contain various metals— including tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold (commonly referred to as “3TG”)—that originate in mines around the world. The 3TG metals have become known as “conflict minerals” because part of the global supply chain is sourced from the DRC and adjoining countries, where a decades-long civil war continues to simmer. This conflict has been exacerbated by various groups fighting to control mines and transit routes used in the trade of these minerals.
Scalable projects seed the way
We know there are no quick solutions. History, as well as our own experience with communities around the world, tells us that environmental and economic changes in the DRC will demand time and patience. Most importantly, these changes must be led by Congolese partners within the communities and supported by improved governance of the energy and economic sectors.
Moving too rapidly or without a nuanced understanding of the complex social and political factors in play could lead to unintended negative consequences. That’s why our multi-tiered Congo Power initiative, launched in late 2017, focuses on bolstering local efforts with measured, scalable steps.
Our first step was to help frame the DRC’s power potential through comprehensive discovery trips to gain firsthand insights. From there, we conducted extensive field research to explore and evaluate potential projects that could help the Congolese living at or near mining communities. And we’re now in the pilot phase.
Congo Power’s pilot projects fall into three major categories: point-of-use power solutions designed to support individuals such as due diligence personnel and mining staff; microgrids designed to support residential communities and targeted commercial, industrial, and agricultural use; and phased support and ongoing investment of funding and technical expertise in regional electrification.
Imagine, for example, pairing solar power with the latest advances in storage technology. The resulting microgrids would enable renewable energy to spark economic opportunity. They could power agricultural equipment, freezers, Wi-Fi networks, water-purification systems, and other equipment prioritized locally by the Congolese—providing new alternatives to artisanal mining and mining-related work for those who need it. Beyond supporting alternative livelihoods, microgrids could also create opportunities to foster and develop women-owned businesses. The cumulative impact would be transformative.
One proposed project focuses on the mining community of Ma Noire in the North Kivu province, where artisanal mining used to be how most people made their living. The community has changed dramatically since the development of the DRC’s first industrial tin mine nearby, and energy may be a key solution in the redirection of Ma Noire’s quality of life, livelihoods, and suppliers. After holding in-depth conversations with local stakeholders to understand their needs, we are proposing the introduction of a small microgrid system that would let local customers pay for energy for their households and small businesses and, in return, gain free Wi-Fi service and water.
While these proposals start small, they can be scaled to grow and adapt as circumstances on the ground change, and they can be replicated in other areas with similar characteristics. Our ultimate goal is to create an open-source platform that a broad range of stakeholders can learn from and invest in.
Pilot projects are scheduled to launch in late 2018.
A collaborative framework for change
Throughout the history of the DRC, colonialism, poverty, and armed struggle have played complex roles, with each significantly enabling the next. At the same time, political friction and historical inertia have allowed the status quo to persist. Shifting that status quo now will take teamwork.
In addition to our partners in the DRC, we’re working with collaborators in academia, conservation organizations, civil society, and other private sector companies, including responsible mining companies and a cross section of local and global energy and technology companies, to consider and address the overlapping human rights and environmental objectives for Congo Power.
For example, we are supporting a research effort with the University of California Berkeley’s Renewable & Appropriate Energy Lab to explore mineral sourcing in the DRC and the intricate relationships among clean energy, conservation, economic empowerment, and conflict.
We are only in the beginning stages of Congo Power. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of our pilot projects and to building on what we learn together. Through our partnerships and collaborative efforts, we will continue to support the people of the DRC and consider new ways to reinforce our shared objective of conflict-free mining.