Congo launches state artisanal cobalt buyer

* Congo produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt

* Move comes as demand booms

* Tunnels banned, pits limited to 10 metres

* Aimed at quashing illegal trading

KINSHASA, March 31 (Reuters) - Congo’s state cobalt buyer on Wednesday announced a responsible sourcing standard for artisanal cobalt, committing to applying regulations drawn up with trading firm Trafigura at all sites.

Artisanal cobalt miners extract the battery metal using rudimentary means, often on unregulated sites and sometimes within industrial mine sites.

Unsafe working practices and child labour have been widely reported on such sites.

The Entreprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC), officially launched on Wednesday, is tasked with formalising the sector and will be the sole legal purchaser of artisanal cobalt.

“From now on all Congolese artisanal cobalt will be bought by EGC, processed by EGC, and marketed by EGC,” said Albert Yuma, chairman of the EGC and of state miner Gecamines.

He said EGC’s activities would begin in earnest in mid-April and that there would be a six-month grace period.

The change to a state monopoly for artisanal cobalt will impact an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 subsistence cobalt miners in the Congo’s southern copperbelt.

Yuma said the EGC would bring a stop to illegal exports which deprive the state of tax revenue and end the exploitation of artisanal miners.

Congo produced 99,000 tonnes of cobalt in 2020 - around 70% of the world total - with 9,000 tonnes coming from artisanal miners, research house CRU estimates.

Trafigura, which signed a supply deal with the EGC last November, argues the state buyer model will improve oversight and worker safety, but said there would be challenges.

Under the new regulations, tunnelling is banned on EGC-approved sites and pits are not to exceed 10 metres in depth. Miners are required to wear personal protective equipment and carry a site registration identity card.

Reporting by Helen Reid and Hereward Holland; editing by Jason Neely