Campus & Community

Benita Kayembe takes hard look at hidden human cost of electric cars

Chan graduate’s research focuses on deadly risks, exploitation faced by workers who mine key component of lithium-ion batteries in Republic of the Congo

8 min read
Benita Kayembe ’23

“My parents said the biggest thing you can give to yourself is education, so I did everything I could to go to school,” said Benita Kayembe, who at 19 moved from the DRC to California, despite knowing no English.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

This story is part of a series of graduate profiles ahead of Commencement ceremonies.

For Benita Kayembe, global health ties together different threads of her life.

She grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Katanga Province, a region known for mining everything from copper and uranium to diamonds and cobalt — a key ingredient of lithium-ion batteries, which power the electric cars that many hope will soon supplant gasoline vehicles globally.

Though mines are an important part of the local economy, she said she grew up unaware of their prominence. But she knew health care was important. Her late father was a nurse who worked in a major mining company hospital, Gecamines Clinic. He also advocated for local people and started a small clinic in their town to meet unmet health needs. There she came to understand the importance of quality healthcare.

“He was a motivation for me,” Kayembe said, “working at Gecamines, being involved in politics, and having a health care center. I saw people dying for no reason. The deaths of many people could have been prevented.”

Kayembe, who is graduating this spring with a master’s of science degree in global health and population from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, took a winding road to Harvard. Despite knowing no English, at age 19 she moved from the DRC to California in 2013 for a chance at greater educational opportunities.

She stayed with family there and, with her parents’ words on the importance of education firmly in mind, she took courses in English at a local job-training nonprofit and then moved on to economics at Cañada College, a public community college in Silicon Valley, earning an associate’s degree.

She transferred to Cornell University and set her sights on international development, earning two bachelor’s degrees by the time she graduated in 2020, in development sociology and in international agriculture and rural development. Along the way, she worked: as a server for a catering company, as a mentor to other community college students, and as a consultant, living in Phoenix and Seattle for a year after Cornell before deciding it was time to keep moving toward her dream.

“I knew that I wanted to pursue education because that was instilled in me,” Kayembe said. “My parents said the biggest thing you can give to yourself is education, so I did everything I could to go to school.”

It was at Cornell that Kayembe took her first global health course, which she felt finally provided an umbrella under which she could bring together the different threads of her studies and experiences.

“When I took my first introduction to global health, I knew that was what I would do,” Kayembe said. “Global health gave me a different perspective on things I already experienced in my life, living in DRC and in California, seeing how education impacts health, economics impacts policy, and global health is at the intersection of everything.”

For the last two years, Kayembe has been studying global health at the Harvard Chan School and says the people she’s met and the subjects she’s explored have helped her understand the forces that shape the health of people around the world and how those forces interact to affect lives.

She’s the president of the Harvard Africa Health Forum, founded a podcast dedicated to diverse voices in global health, and was a panelist at the Prince Mahidol Award Conference in Thailand, where she presented the results of research last summer that took her back to DRC for the first time in a decade.

She was happy to visit family while she was there, but the focus of that trip was the independent cobalt miners who operate outside of the operations of large companies. This informal sector is made up of tens of thousands of workers — including between 10,000 and 17,000 children and accounts for about 20 percent of DRC’s cobalt production.

The nation’s cobalt industry, which produces about 70 percent of the global supply, has drawn more attention in recent years as demand for the mineral has increased. It is, after all, a key component in the batteries that power a variety of popular consumer products, including computers, cellphones, and electric vehicles. But analysts say a significant part of the demand is because of surging electric car sales amid rising signs of climate change.

Miners toil with little protection, and the work is hazardous. According to media reports, in 2019, 43 informal miners were killed in the DRC when a copper and cobalt mine collapsed; in 2020, 50 were killed after a gold mine shaft collapsed; in 2021, 12 died in a landslide at an informal gold mine; and in March 2023, two miners died in a collapse at one mine, while nearby, nine others were rescued after two days underground when the mine they were working in collapsed after heavy rain.

Spoils from mining can also be toxic. In 2021, 12 people were killed and 4,500 sickened when toxic metals from a diamond mine in Angola spilled into the Kasai River and flowed into DRC.

Kayembe, supported by a Rose Service Learning Fellowship, worked on the project in collaboration with Tony Kitenge at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Médicales de Lubumbashi, who assisted her in getting access to the miners and the sites. 

When she sat down with people and asked about their lives, Kayembe said she was surprised at how willing they were to share their experiences working all day to extract the ore from which cobalt can be separated.

During the 45 or so interviews she conducted, she learned that these miners are pushed into the work by economic pressures and subject to exploitation by systemic corruption. They often work with rudimentary tools or bare hands; they have no protective equipment; and the work is sometimes done by families. She saw kids as young as 5 cleaning off the minerals their mothers found. The mining sites had no schools, healthcare centers, or even facilities as rudimentary as toilets nearby.

“I grew up in Katanga six hours from a cobalt mine,” Kayembe said. “I grew up in a family in a community shielded from other realities.”

Jesse Bump, executive director of the Takemi Program in International Health at the Chan School and lecturer on global health policy, advised Kayembe on the project, encouraging her to forge ahead on work that he said “illuminates a vast universe of harm.”

Bump praised the breadth of experience and scholarship that Kayembe can bring to bear and said all of that gives her the opportunity to do meaningful work in places where health ills are significant yet often missed because of inaccessibility and cultural and language barriers. To Kayembe, he said, those are no barriers at all.

“As a Congolese citizen,” Bump said, “she has a life experience that goes to the core of what we’re studying in global health: What are the causes of inequality? What are the skills you need to interrogate that?

“Much of what we do in global health is predicated on the reality that health is personal, and yet to confront that on a global scale often requires a tool kit that is somewhat reductionist: We do a lot of counting and calculating and then make assumptions based on our best estimates and surveys about what things must be like and what might be needed.

“But Benita can shortcut that in the Congo because she speaks the languages, knows the culture, and illuminates a set of dynamics that would resist interrogation by methods that are much more common here. What you have in her work is exactly the kind of work we should be doing, and exactly the kind of person who should be doing it.”

And Kayembe plans on continuing. She’s certain she wants her work to benefit people in disadvantaged communities in the DRC, though she confesses she’s not certain what that means for the months and years after graduation. She expects to work for a time and is already considering whether a Ph.D. program might be the right next step. What she’s sure of is that the need for artisanal miners will only grow as the world charges forward with electrification. She also knows she doesn’t want them to be an afterthought in the push for a more sustainable planet.

“I might be enjoying an electric car,” Kayembe said, “but somewhere someone is dying.”