KIGALI, RWANDA— Industries worldwide are taking a closer look at their supply chains for minerals exported from Africa's Great Lakes region. They are worried they could be penalized for buying conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo that are labeled as other countries' production. To counter those fears and build confidence among importers, Rwanda has started issuing regionally approved certificates for exports from its own mines.
A large delegation of mining experts, journalists and others visited the Rutongo tin mine in central Rwanda this month and were greeted with a song of welcome from miners and other employees.
The message of the song is that industrial mining has improved people’s lives in this area and that the products exported from here are not conflict minerals.
Rutongo is the first mine in Rwanda where mineral exports have been given "conflict-free" certificates by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a body representing 11 countries including Rwanda and the DRC.
It is one of Rwanda’s largest tin mines with nearly 42 kilometers of tunnels.
Companies like Rutongo Mines Ltd do not want to fall afoul of U.S. legislation, part of the Dodd-Frank Act, that could penalize buyers of minerals from this region unless the products can be shown to be conflict-free.
Taking matters seriously
Martin Kahanovitz, chief executive officer of Rutongo Mines Ltd., says he is taking the risks seriously.
"I mean we are putting in millions and millions of dollars. Are we going to start [trafficking] conflict minerals and contaminated minerals? There’s no chance. We’ll lose everything, and on top of that, as far as the people are concerned, you know the people have got everything to lose and they understand that," says Kahanovitz.
To guard against conflict minerals being smuggled into the supply chain from the mine, Rutongo Mines works with a body called ITSCI, an organization set up by the tin industry, which was asked by Rwanda's government to install a tagging system at all of the country’s mines.
Kahanovitz explains that the system means each tag can be traced to a miner.
"You can pick any tag number and when you go to the top I’ll trace it back to the miner. There’s a lots of paperwork that goes on here between ITSCI and our mineral supervisor and on top of it once they come and take the minerals at night in our truck with our security and with ITSCI, we lock the material up at the top and the next morning we then reconcile everything to make sure the weights are the same," says Kahanovitz.
Between 2008 and 2012, Rwanda’s exports of minerals grew at a rate of 44 percent per year. Some experts have questioned whether all of the minerals come from the country's own mines. But the head of Rwanda’s mining association, Jean Marie Kalima, says it’s an indication of how fast mining is developing here.
He says just after the Dodd-Frank Act became law, everyone started developing mines, so that today in Rwanda the mines have multiplied and more than 500 mining licenses have been issued.
The U.S.-based Enough Project, which campaigns for responsible mineral sourcing, agrees that mining is booming here. Sasha Lezhnev is the campaign coordinator.
"I’m very impressed that Rwanda together with private investors have started developing several of their mines, and the reason we’re impressed by this is because for so many years minerals and mines in this region were in a situation of opacity where everything was done under cover. Now we’re seeing much more sunshine on the process. There are no children working in the large scale mines and there’s better traceability about where the minerals are coming from," said Lezhnev.
Lezhnev also noted that the tagging system has uncovered much more of Rwanda’s own production. But he believes countries in the region need to do more to reassure buyers, in particular by appointing an independent auditor for the ICGLR certification system.
"Rwanda, Congo, the ICGLR and the rest of the region really need to speed up this certification process which can guarantee conflict minerals from the Great Lakes region for the first time ever. If they do not speed up this process to finalize all the parts of the ICGLR certification, then companies will stop buying eventually because they won’t have confidence in the process," said Lezhnev.
The secretary general of the ICGLR, Congo's Ntumba Luaba, was part of the delegation visiting Rutongo this month. He told VOA there’s nothing holding up the ICGLR’s certification process, the studies are already well advanced, and they are in the process of recruiting an independent auditor, which will require a lot of funds.