How fair is your phone? | Beyond the Bike @ tutor2u

Beyond the Bike

Stuart & Claire’s 2015/16 tandem trip from Canary Wharf to China

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Did you know that your smartphone is manufactured using around 40 minerals, often mined in pockets of war-torn Africa such as Eastern Congo whose conflict has seen the greatest number of deaths since WWII? Did you also know that these pocket-sized super-computers can crunch data faster than the (room size) machine NASA used to put the first man on the moon? Very much the the epitomy of the new globalised world that we live in, democratising access to information but can the label of 'fair-trade’ and 'eco-friendly' be added to these gadgets in a similar way to a chocolate bar, or indeed a bamboo bike…?

Claire’s Bamboo Bike enjoying some publicity here at The Sarojin Hotel in Thailand

Claire is riding a beautiful Bamboo bike, surely the ultimate in ‘eco’ modes of transport. Relative to the factory produced metal or carbonfibre framed bikes, a bamboo bike takes a few months to grow (and then 50 hours of fairly paid Africa labour to build). We picked it up from bike-builder Kasoma Noordin in Uganda at the start of our Africa leg. Kasoma is one of the few, and probably the best, African bamboo bike builders. But this industry is tiny, likely the preserve of small enterprises, often funded by socially conscious crowdfunding campaigns*. It isn’t the obvious one to use to focus on the wider issue of fairtrade and sustainability.

The evolution of trade in general, and ethical trade in particular, can be seen through two products that many of us Western consumers can’t live without: chocolate and smartphones. One goal of the Economic Cycle, in partnership with the socially-conscious enterprise Fairphone, is to follow the supply chain of minerals used in smartphones, from African Mine to Chinese factory. One thing is for certain, the supply chain is a lot more complicated that that of chocolate, most commonly used in the classroom when teachers are focusing on the controversial ‘fairtrade’ topic.

Chocolate of course has the longer history, dating back to nearly 2000BC when Aztecs in Mesoamerica used the cacao seeds to make ‘chocolate’ beverages. As its consumption grew with Europe ‘discovering’ the new world and then exploding with the industrial revolution, the ethics of consumption have always been controversial, given the labour intensive processes involved in growing cocoa. Slaves were a common feature of production in both the Caribbean & West Africa and arguably still are today: Nestle, the world’s largest food producer is currently being sued for allegedly using ‘child slaves’ in its cocoa production in the Ivory Coast. Many companies, including giants like Cadbury boast of fair-trade but Divine Chocolate have taken it to the next, and genuinely SUSTAINABLE level: 45% of the company is owned by the farmers themselves, aligning incentives and ensuring a fairer distribution of the income from the sale of your chocolate bar than the average ‘fair-trade’ product.

When the farmers are actual shareholders in the chocolate company, you can eat guilt-free!

However, the market for chocolate, despite expected sales in 2016 of a staggering $100bn globally, doesn’t really encapsulate the complexities of the modern world economy with a similar supply chain to the start of the 20th Century. Smartphones, meanwhile, do and they have become the fastest selling gadgets in history, according to the Economist. But have you ever stopped to think where your phone comes from. ‘Made in China, designed in California’, Apple helpfully tells us but the process is a lot more complicated and Fairphone are helping to educate us on this!


How fair is your phone?

We have tried to follow more closely the route of the minerals used in Fairphones. There are around 40 minerals in a smart phone, many of which come from poor African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For example, tantalum is used to make the capacitors in circuit boards, essential in smartphones. An incredible 80% of the global supply of coltan, the mineral from which tantalum is extracted from, is found in the DRC. The country has been plagued by civil war, most of it associated with a struggle for control of the mines. The NGO Enough estimate more than 5 millions deaths, have been caused by these conflicts.

We were not able to visit a Congolese mine but did make it to copper and nickel mines in Zambia and down an artisanal gold mine in Zimbabwe. Our 30 minutes was more than enough time. I cannot imagine an 8 hour shift, 5 days a week. Gold is a super-conductor and used extensively in phones - you can find more gold in 50 smartphones than in a ton of ore coming up to the surface in the mine we visited in Zimbabwe. Whilst workers at the mines we visited were fairly treated, this is not the case everywhere and ‘conflict minerals’ are still a huge issue, not just in the DRC.

Working conditions in mines can be miserable as we saw first hand

Fairphone is working to ensure that the minerals mined for their phones come from mines with fair conditions. This is rather an uphill struggle and whilst they don't claim that their phones are 'fairtrade' but they are making progress, far more than any other smart phone manufacturer.


Minerals are carried in lorries (under armed guard in South Africa) to various ports on Africa's east coast and then shipped to Asian factory. We followed their route to the main South African port of Durban, often being pushed off the road by the huge lorries. It was amazing to see the copper trucks, in particular, which look like they have nothing on them, but move so slowly as the copper is so heavy. Despite the depressed commodity prices, these trucks were worth millions of dollars, hence the armed guards!

We were passed by hundreds of trucks taking Copper & other minerals to the port of Durban

There are so many different people involved in this complicated supply chain and it is great to see one enterprise having a social conscience and we hope to visit the Fairphone factory in China and tell readers more about it when we get there. As well as ensuring stakeholders in the production process get a fair deal, they are also working to promote owner repair of their phones (whilst the big producers' business plans rely on planned obsolesence and are doing their best to ensure we 'upgrade' rather than repair) and ensuring phones don't end up as toxic waste in the developing world.

The author learning how to repair his phone in Amsterdam so he could use it to record the journey!

While the likes of Divine Chocolate and Fairphone are making admirable efforts to improve the livelihoods of ALL stakeholders in the production (and disposal) of two products most of us love to consume, it will be consumers that ultimately will have vote with their wallet and I hope you do. Such products don’t come cheap, however, and given an Indian company has recently launched a £5 smartphone, it may be a while before genuinely ‘fair’ phones are being sold in the markets of Mumbai.

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