Kinshasa (AFP) - DR Congo’s long-inactive state cobalt buyer is set to the unveil the artisanal mines it will work with in a bid to improve dire working conditions, the firm’s head said Thursday.

Over 200,000 people are estimated to work in informal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest producer of the critical mineral, a key ingredient in batteries.

Accusations of child labour and corruption also plague the sector.

In 2019, the DRC established the Entreprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC), which has a monopoly on buying and selling artisanal cobalt, with the aim of improving conditions.

However, the state company has remained largely inactive since.

On Thursday, EGC director general Eric Kalala told AFP the company is studying eight pilot sites from which it may soon start sourcing cobalt.

The sites are on concessions owned by the DRC’s state mining company Gecamines in the southeastern provinces of Lualaba and Haut-Katanga.

“We’re studying the mineralisation (of the sites) to check we can use them,” Kalala said on the sidelines of an EGC event in Kinshasa.

Confirmation of the pilot sites is expected within the coming weeks, he added, saying the EGC would then try to secure access to the mines, distribute protective gear and start a mineral traceability scheme.

“It’s a first step,” he said.

EGC officials at the Kinshasa event said the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and delays in establishing a market regulator contributed to the struggles to get the firm operating.

But Congolese mining activist Franck Fwamba told event attendees that politicians with stakes in informal cobalt mines were to blame.

He also suggested that DRC’s Mining Minister Antoinette N’Samba was opposed to the EGC.

Last year, N’Samba said in a media report that EGC’s artisanal cobalt monopoly was illegal.

The minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from AFP.