Behind the Shiny Surfaces of the Smartphone Industry

For his research, PhD candidate Gabriel Kamundala (University of Zurich) documented the complex work processes of artisanal mining in the Kamituga region (Democratic Republic of Congo). He provided revealing insights into small-scale mining as well as fascinating portraits of the workers.

Portraits in motion

Mining sites in Kamituga


Processing raw material

Trading gold in the local store

Live photos and video by Gabriel Kamundala, © ZHdK 2021

Stories From a Local Economy

The Kamituga region in the Democratic Republic of Congo is highly dependent on gold extraction. In order to get a differentiated view on the local economy, PhD candidate Gabriel Kamundala (University of Zurich) did interviews with workers and entrepreneurs of different professions and fields.

Surrounded by dust and noise

The mine workers in the self-excavated mines face great danger and precarious conditions. Raymond Mulonda Tanga describes his situation.

Women in water

Women workers buy the remains of the extraction from the miners and laboriously wash out the sparse remaining gold. Salome Bitendanwa, a widow who struggles to feed her children, explains her work as a gold washer.

On the gold scale

The mine workers sell the extracted gold to local traders. Here they also receive loans to pre-finance their work and their living. Santos Omben Kayanda, a gold buyer in Kamituga, gives insights into the local business.

In the stores

The negative consequences of artisanal gold mining, such as labor exploitation and environmental hazards, are counterbalanced by positive effects for a poverty-stricken region. Vainquer Murhesa Ephrem, a pharmacy owner in Kamituga, discusses the local economy from his perspective.

Interviews by Gabriel Kamundala @ 2021 ZHdK

Investigating and Mediating

The project Kamituga | Digital Gold involves recent research results from two different angles. The Political Geography group at the University of Zurich (Department of Geography) draws from a series of research projects about artisanal mining in Central Africa and the interconnected international supply chains. The Immersive Arts Space at Zurich University of the Arts explores new approaches to mediation through the use of cutting-edge technology.

Gabriel Kamundala (on the left, with headphones) among miners of the Kamituga region, DRC, undertaking interviews. Photo by Alfred Bora-Uzima / ©2021

The geography of artisanal gold mining

Despite its important contribution to the global digital economy, the gold business remains uneven and opaque. This is particularly problematic for global gold workers, around 80 percent of whom work in so-called artisan and small-scale mining in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Estimates vary greatly but overall, a total of 45 million workers across 60 countries are occupied in artisan and small-scale mining of different minerals. Goldmining entails about half the share of total workers. Between 10-50% are female and under-aged workers, with numbers varying widely across geographical areas. Women and children are usually occupied with the processing of the ore, while adult males are generally involved in digging it and control the mines. Around 150 million people around the world are estimated to be economically dependent on small-scale goldmining.

In the mines, accidents occur frequently and health conditions are poor due to exposure to mercury and dust. At the same time, mining provides an essential contribution to millions of livelihoods: artisan mining generates capital that is, in turn, invested into retail, real estate, restaurants and hotels and household consumption.

The research of the Political Geography Group (University of Zurich) focuses on small-scale gold mining in Africa. As many local and global aspects as possible are taken into account for a complex approach. Thus, in addition to the exploitative supply chains, the productive impacts on the local population are also investigated. The irony of digital gold being both an enabler and inhibitor of global privilege forms the central aspect of the project Kamituga | Digital Gold.

Interview of Salome Bitwane as it was displayed in the Planet Digital exhibition. (Museum für Gestaltung © 2022)

The discomfort with digital technology

The starting point for all digitally-based experiences designed by the Immersive Arts Space team are the photographs, videos and 3D scans that PhD candidate Gabriel Kamundala recorded in Kamituga in the summer of 2021, using a latest-generation smartphone. In this way, a ubiquitous device, itself containing gold and rare minerals, provides insights into the living conditions of artisanal mine workers and, at the same time, draws attention to the many challenges of the mobile tech industry.

Photo of an interactive installation used in the Planet Digital exhibition. Visitors could navigate through a virtual mine based on a 3D model. At a certain point during the exploration, an interview with mine owner Bossissi Birindwa, appeared in front of their eyes. (ZHdK © 2021)

With 3D scans and tracking, two aspects of new technology are highlighted in particular. Using the built-in scanner in his smartphone, Gabiel Kamundala was able to capture narrow mine tunnels and other spaces as digital 3D models. The scans serve as the basis for interactive, spatial experiences. The navigation required for this is based on body tracking. By their movements, visitors can navigate around the digital 3D space without having to rely on virtual reality goggles or other devices. At the same time, the simple tracking (without data storage) can raise awareness among the audience about increasingly omnipresent tracking methods.

Interactive set-up with a 3D model of a hand-dug mine in Kamituga. Visitors can navigate through the mine on the basis of their body movements and they can control the flashlight by moving their right hand. (ZHdK © 2022)

The project design raises fundamental questions: Does it make sense to use an energy-intensive technology that requires significant amounts of rare minerals and gold in order to depict and raise awareness of the issues accompanying the extraction of these very minerals? In any event, the chosen concept places emphasis on the contradictions and thus aims to make the resulting discomfort of the viewers the starting point for an increased awareness.

Taking Complexity into Account

Improving the working conditions, health care and safety of artisanal miners is being pursued by various parties. Local and national initiatives in the Congo aim at regulating supply chains, traceability and increased due diligence in the trade of gold and rare earths. Other approaches, particularly at the international level, seek to hold electronics companies more accountable and push for improved conditions for workers in small-scale mining. Finally, consumers are urged to shop more consciously, to look for alternatives to the products on offer from large corporations and to recycle.

Downtown Kamituga, Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, as displayed in the Planet Digital exhibition in Zurich. (ZHdK © 2021)

The Trouble with Complexity

The various solutions to the problems of poverty and risk in the artisanal mining sector often fail due to the complexity of the circumstances. One example is part of a 2010 U.S. law that, among other things, sought to stop the flow of money from mineral mining in the Congo to armed groups and required publicly traded U.S. companies to disclose whether they used “conflict minerals” (tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold) from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, the legislation ultimately had the effect of hitting artisanal miners the hardest, while increasing smuggling of rare earths and gold and missing the goal of stopping the flow of money into war funding.

How About Switzerland?

Switzerland plays a key role in the global gold trade. The country imports an average of 2,500 to 3,000 tons annually of mined gold from over 60 countries, along with recycled gold. It refines the equivalent of 70 percent of the world’s annual production. It is home to four of the world’s largest gold refineries: Metalor, Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and PAMP.

Precious metals from Africa – where the working conditions of artisanal miners are among the worst in the world – reach Switzerland indirectly via third countries. Even though the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the major gold producers, official exports amount to only a fraction of its estimated production. Most of it is smuggled to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Other known routes of gold smuggling lead from Burkina Faso to Togo. These transit countries, with no gold resources of their own, supply the global market, mainly via Dubai.

Exchanging gold from dubious origins and not combatting smuggling from third countries remains a major issue. Importers in Switzerland claim it is difficult to determine the origin of gold because it becomes mixed up in global value chains and some countries lack either the will or the power to increase legal scrutiny on this important commerce.

About Us

Kamituga Digital Gold is a cooperation between the Political Geography group of the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich and the Immersive Arts Space of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). – Scientific methods of political geography meet concepts of artistic research.

Field research in Kamituga, Democratic Republic of Congo: PhD candidate Gabriel Kamundala (center, with face mask) among local mining workers. ZHdK ©2021

Political Geography Group:

  • Research, interviews, 3D scans, videos, photographs: Gabriel Kamundala, PhD candidate, Department of Geography, University of Zurich
  • Group leader, supervision and textual content: Dr. Timothy Raeymaekers, Assistant Professor Department of History and Cultures – Geography Unit, University of Bologna
  • Dr. Muriel Côte, Associate senior lecturer, Department of Human Geography, University of Lund
Testing interactive settings for the exhibition in Zurich: Florian Christoph Bruggisser (left), Kristina Jungic (center) and Chris Elvis Leisi (right). ZHdK ©2021

Immersive Arts Space:

  • Scenography: Mariana Vieira Gruenig
  • Interaction Design, 3D Experience: Chris Elvis Leisi
  • Spatial Augmented Reality Engineer: Florian Christoph Bruggisser
  • Video editing, storytelling: Alan Sahin
  • Sound design: Patrycja Pakiela
  • Additional on location audio recordings: Alfred Borauzima
  • Translation, proofreading: Alliance Riziki Murhula, Edward Wright
  • Voice over: Shabnam Chamani, Rino Hosennen
  • Chief technician: Sébastien Schiesser
  • Production manager: Kristina Jungic
  • Project lead: Prof. Christian Iseli

Contact email:

Planet Digital

The exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich (February – May, 2022), of which Kamituga | Digital Gold formed one segment, focused on digitalization in the context of research projects. > More about Planet Digital.

Video impression from the KAMITUGA | DIGITAL GOLD exhibition in Zurich. © ZHdK2021