Traceability of African material resources, a complicated affair

When it comes to its natural resources, Africa is an extremely rich continent. From the gold mines in South Africa to the coffee and cocoa plantations in Western Africa, including the gold, cobalt and coltan mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, all these richesses come at a very high price: armed conflicts and human rights’ violations are almost inherent to the obtainment of these produces. These are not breaking news, but they are not as mentioned as they should. Many consumers from developed countries ignore that this is still a big problem in dozens of countries worldwide. The aim of this post is to help understand how these resources are obtained and processed.

Gold miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Source: Pascaline Kavuo Mwasi Saambili, GPJ DRC.

Traceability is key. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the ability to discover information about where and how a product was made”. However, this is not as easy at it may seem. Knowing that half of the gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten mines in the DRC are controlled my militias, how can the average consumer know if this belongs to such armed groups or not? How can the consumer know if they buy legally exported minerals? Regarding other resources like cocoa, the questions are different, but they share a similar core. How can consumers know if the cocoa they buy is grown in protected forests or whether it has been harvested by children?

Unfortunately, it is practically impossible for consumers to track where the products they buy exactly comes from. In the supply chain of theses resources, there is a notorious number of middlemen between the harvesters and the final consumer. Regarding cocoa, for example, there are pisteurs, who transport cocoa from the field to sell it to cooperatives, who then will sell it to produce traders that will sell the product to the chocolate companies. The actual origin of the produce can be lost in any of these stages. Therefore, consumers must rely in organizations that expertise in the field of tracking the origin of these resources.

Cocoa farmers in Ghana. Source: Thierry Gouegnon, Reuters.

In the chocolate business, some companies decide to monitor by themselves the origin of the cocoa beans they use. If they decide to use beans that are slavery and conflict free, they label their product as ethical. This modus operandi, known as “self-certification”, is concerning since companies can label their own products as “fair trade” without having to go through external examinations. Some companies that self-certificate have opted to establish partnerships with third-party organizations (like Mondélez and its program Cocoa Life with Fairtrade), but this practice remains less transparent that full dependance from third-party organizations.

Ideally, to guarantee the highest possible level of transparency, companies should always resort to third-party organizations. Luckily, organizations like Fairtrade label many different resources, from chocolate and coffee to minerals like gold. Other organizations include Rainforest Alliance and UTZ. Third-party labelling guarantees independence and transparency when it comes to determining whether a product comes has a fair origin or not. A well-known Fairtrade labelled chocolate confectioner is Tony’s Chocolonely, from the Netherlands. Tony’s Chocolonely gives a high importance to traceability and its partnership with Fairtrade has made them one of the most trusted companies in the chocolate business.

Gold is not only used in jewelry. Gold is also a conductor of electricity and is used in many technological products, including cellphones. To avoid using gold coming from armed militias or gold obtained via slavery, the Dutch cellphone company Fairphone is partnered with Fairtrade in buying more ethically obtained gold.

Fairphone phones are modular, which makes them easily repairable. Source: Fairphone

Fruits from South and Central America, clothes from South Eastern Asia, tech products from China… Most of what the average consumer buys today comes from less developed countries, where the conditions of workers are far from ideal. It is very difficult for consumers to determine if the products they buy have been ethically produced or not. Labelling organizations help consumers make a choice but their action field is limited. To guarantee that as many products as possible are produced while respecting human rights, are environmentally friendly and conflict-free, governments from developed and developing countries must also step forward.


Cambridge Dictionary. Traceability:

United Nations Environment Programme. Experts’ background report on illegal exploitation and trade in natural resources benefiting organized criminal groups and recommendations on MONUSCO’S role in fostering stability and peace in eastern DR Congo (2015):

Kira Zalan, The World. Tracing conflict gold in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2017):

Etelle Higonnet, Marisa Bellantonio, Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty Earth. Chocolate’s dark secret (2017):

Miranda Grizio, Foodtank. Mondeléz International’s Cocoa Life Program Promises Farmers a Sweeter Deal (2017):

Fairphone. Scaling up Fairtrade gold sourcing in our supply chain (2019):

Tony’s Chocolonely. Our mission: