FairPhone, a new Dutch company, proposes to change the mobile phone production chain to make it sustainable, fair and transparent

At the age of 33, Bas van Abel, from Holland, began to work on a campaign in 2010 to raise awareness regarding the issues that electronic devices are currently causing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children, pregnant women and adults work exhausting shifts to extract coltan, cassiteriet, gold or tungsten from the mountains to make electronic components and mobile phones. Five years later, Van Abel has launched 60,000 handsets of a telephone whose components and production respect fair trade rules, the FairPhone.

“Mobile phones are the symbol of connectivity. However, we have lost all connection with the people who make them. There is an unknown world behind each pixel you see, every byte sent”, pondered Van Abel last year in an interview, when the first shipments of the FairPhone reached customers after a crowdfunding campaign in which 25,000 people contributed 350 euros to provide Van Abel with an operating margin. A large figure, considering that the phone did not even exist at that point and the FairPhone team had to forge alliances with mines in Congo to ensure the supply of some of the raw materials, visit factories in China to assemble the handsets and develop the technology.

“With over 300 separate components based on 30 minerals, a mobile phone is a very complicated product to monitor; some issues go beyond the control of the company” says Miquel Ballester, a young Spaniard who has worked with the company as a product developer from the beginning. “FairPhone can now track two of the main minerals to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, such as tantalum, which is extracted and used to make circuit boards, and tin, which is used for the solder paste”, adds Ballester, for whom traceability is the beginning of the supply chain. With two organizations on the ground, Solution for Hope Project and Conflict-Free Tin Initiative, FairPhone has taken its first steps in certifying that the sale of the precious materials from the mines is not used to finance armed conflicts.

A pigmy among giants

“We are only 30 people and the mobile industry is enormous”, says Ballester when trying to explain the difficulties associated with the complex electronics business. “We have had all types of challenges, from finding a transparent partner in China, to operational issues, such as having a technical service”, he says. However, the young people at FairPhone have managed to transform all these issues into advantages. The one hundred workers who assemble the devices in the Chinese factory in Guohuong have a fund subsidised by the sale of the handsets that can be used for whatever is more beneficial for them, such as training or improving conditions at the plant. As it does not have a physical technical service, FairPhone offers on-line manuals that can be consulted by any person and open programming codes on its handsets. In addition, spare parts can be acquired at very low prices. It is a telephone designed to last a long time.

While FairPhone was shipping its handsets to its customers, 216 million smartphones were being manufactured worldwide during the same quarter of 2014. However, these very modest figures are also seen in a positive light. “We are not trying to compete but to create a social and environmental impact. We must continue to be small for this change to work”, says the young Spaniard.

At this point in the conversation with Ballester, we no longer speak about mobile phones but about a different way of understanding business, of a project that seeks fairness and that is trying to achieve it. A long-distance race that will depend on the demographic growth of consumers who are aware of the issues so that the change Ballester is talking about can take place. After all, the average age of FairPhone buyers is 37.