Congolese artisenal miner. AP PhotosRwanda’s mining boss announced this week the world’s first blockchain project to track tantalum from the pit-face to the refinery, part of a push to woo investors seeking a conflict-free source of minerals.

The project is the work of Circulor, a British start-up specialized in blockchain, and Power Resources Group (PRG), which has mining and refining operations in Rwanda and Macedonia.

It is also seeking to fight off allegations its resources are being blended with smuggled minerals that can be used to fuel conflict in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The technology behind cyptocurrency, blockchain enables the creation of a shared database of transactions maintained by a network of computers on the internet, making it harder for anyone to tamper with than separately held records.

“The system is extraordinary simple, you literally just have to click one button on telephone, so anyone whose is certified within the mining system, just like we have specific jobs if you are mining; foremen, technician or team leader if you are a person in charge of traceability, then you are trained in our system. So it is very simplistic system to use, if there is no data, then as soon as the data connects during the day, it will upload in batch,” said Ray Power, chief executive of Power Resources Group (PRG).

Power said that since he first came to Rwanda in 2015, he had heard constant “criticisms on traceability” for minerals.

The Rwandan government is seeking to harness its mineral wealth to boost its economy, still recovering from genocide of 1994, when an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in just 100 days.

An agent of change

Rwandan officials say it was vital for Rwanda to prove it was a conflict-free source of tantalum, used amongst other things in mobile phones, and other minerals.

“Rwanda has demonstrated without a doubt that the minerals coming from Rwanda are conflict-free and that’s not questionable whatsoever. But now what we are looking at is how to continue to demonstrate that with the solution that is cost effective and efficient that is adopting also modern technologies that are consistent with how the rest of the world are doing this, said Francis Gatare, chief executive of Rwanda’s Mines, Petroleum and Gas Board.

Mining companies, which increasingly struggle to win investor confidence as the pursuit of opportunities drives them into high-risk territory, are exploring the potential of blockchain to mitigate any dangers.

Power said PRG was determined to be “an agent of change”, with Circulor using GPS tracking and facial recognition to help prevent any corruption of the system. It also compares the amount of each batch of material put into a refinery from sealed bags with the end product.

“So security tags are put on bags of material, and those security tags are created by the company themselves, it’s free. But the security tag is created only for particular point in the life cycle, so in this case these tags have been created for this particular mine site and can only be used here. So the only point where they can be added to the block chain is here at the mine site where they they were intended for,” said Douglas Johnson Poengsen, CEO and founder of Circulor system.

In the mining sector so far, blockchain has been used by Anglo American unit De Beers to monitor diamonds to help to guarantee they are free from conflict or child labour.

Projects are also underway to track cobalt, used in batteries.

But critics of blockchain say, like any other monitoring system, it is only as good as the data entered into it.

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