Especially when cobalt prices are low, pit owners are incentivised to have their ore washed and sorted, or just sorted if there is not a lot of surplus mud or dirt in the bags. Sorting equally increases the total cobalt grade of the bag, achieving maximum economic return by separating and selling low grade and high grade separately. Such disaggregation can increase overall value. Both cobalt (black) and copper (green) can be identified by a trained eye.
Pit owners and diggers / creuseurs
ASM sites comprise many — sometimes thousands — of vertical excavations or pits that burrow tens of metres to access cobalt ore. Pits are controlled by individual pit owners either by virtue of ownership rights to the surface land areas from before the mine site opened (as is the case for many of the pits at Kasulu) or because the cooperative at the site has determined the allocation through a process that appears to be reasonably transparent and widely understood. The pit owner’s participation in the workings of the pit ranges from an arm’s length relationship extracting a fee or rent from the digging team, to being quite involved and providing working capital for a pit team to pay for food and to buy basic equipment and even managing the organisation of the operation itself.
The pit is excavated by a team of 5–7 diggers (locally known as creuseurs) that either work inside the pit, carry bags of ore up the shafts to the surface, guard already produced ore, or coordinate the teamwork. These teams generally operate under a profit-sharing agreement with the pit owner. Usually diggers are provided with a small daily compensation for their time, which might be paid in cash or through the provision of food. The cooperative has the responsibility to ensure that agreements between pit owners and diggers are reasonable and fair. The frequency with which the cooperative mediates agreements is generally considered to be low, however.
Once sufficient ore has been aggregated at the surface of the pit, the pit owner, or a designated team member, transports the ore to either a trading station inside the ZEA or to independent open trading zones where many traders are assembled alongside arterial roads. Where the pit owners participate significantly in working the pit, they can claim 50–60% of the earnings. Where they are not involved, the pit owner might typically expect 10% of the sales value. The remaining 40–50% of the revenue is divided between the team members after expenses — such as food, cash advances, and equipment — have been deducted. The split of revenue is evenly distributed among the digger team, except for the team leader or pit foreman who receives a higher share. The unit of sales, and thus also of revenue split, is the bag or ‘lot’ of cobalt ore.
According to a limited survey that was circulated to about 20 miners by the research team, and interviews carried out with cooperative leadership, the average monthly income for an ASM cobalt digger is between USD 160 and USD 190. When the price of cobalt was higher, diggers reported earning up to USD 450 every two weeks, and sometimes up to USD 1,000 a month. Without a more intensive study it is difficult to validate these figures, but it is important to note that the change in income for diggers in the months around the time of the research was conducted for this report was sudden and the subsequent drop in income negatively affected the mood of workers at the ASM sites.