Add Value to East Africa Gems and People Will Shine, Too
Add Value to East Africa Gems and People Will Shine, Too
By Robert Weldon, GG
GIA Manager of Photography & Visual Communications
Editor’s Note: GIA attended the Arusha International Gem and Mineral Fair to learn how it can serve the local community with gemological education and resources. This initiative is part of GIA’s expanded effort to help bring the broader benefits of the gem trade to people in the places where gems are produced.
Once the lions left the watering hole to hunt, Miriam Kamau was able to collect the water she needed for her own survival. Aside from the daily task of avoiding contact with these carnivores, the conditions near the mines at which she worked near Voi, Kenya, were fraught with other types of hostility.
“I hunted for meat, lived like a boy (to avoid problems a young woman might face) and I dug for gemstones. For most people there is no understanding about working at the mines—seeing life and death, feeling it, and smelling it,” she explained. “But I always knew those conditions would change. I knew this from my faith and because of my hunger for knowledge.”
Kamau, a Nairobi, Kenya-based gem dealer, attended the first-ever Arusha International Gem and Mineral Fair (AIGMF) held in late April 2012. Like many other gem dealers across Africa, Kamau personifies the struggles of so many Africans to eke out a living in the gem business.
And yet East Africa remains one of the world’s greatest suppliers of gemstones, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. As the African economies grow, in part by meeting global demand for rare earth minerals, metals, diamonds and gems, the question arises: will its people be able to reap the rewards and surge ahead as well?
The city of Arusha, Tanzania owes its existence to tourism. Located close to Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro and noteworthy wildlife preserves such as the N’goro N’goro Conservation Area, it hosts visitors from around the world who come to see its natural beauty. Arusha, which can be reached on a direct flight from Europe, also benefits from the wealth and natural resources of nearby gem mines, particularly tanzanite
The AIGMF show, with substantial support from the Tanzanian government and the Tanzania Mineral Dealers Association (TAMIDA), shed light on the efforts the country is making to bring business to the source and help Tanzanians gain a stronger foothold in the gem and jewelry industry.
“One year in preparation, [the show] illustrates the magnitude of importance our government has placed on this,” said William Ngeleja, Tanzania’s recently departed minister of energy and minerals.
“We want to see transactions for gems mined here to be concluded here. We also want to create incentives for foreign buyers to relocate and bring in the necessary resources for capacity building—be it in exploration, the mining sector, the cutting sector or jewelry making. This will help job creation, poverty alleviation and be good for our country,” he explains.
The show clearly reflected his government’s attitude and was deemed a largely positive experience for exhibitors and buyers. It drew 500 attendees from 25 countries; 300 were buyers representing 200 companies.
“Considering this was our first attempt, I couldn’t be more encouraged and happy,” said the show’s organizing chairman, gem dealer Abe Suleman, who is based in Arusha. “Tanzania exported $3.9 million in sales at the show.”
Other important milestones were reached as well. For one, AIGMF successfully brought gem dealers from across East Africa together in an open, business-friendly environment. Show officials acknowledged some recalcitrance from potential exhibitors from neighboring countries who were not sure how their exports into Tanzania would be handled.
Government officials said they will redouble their efforts to open the borders for import and export so neighboring countries such as Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique can easily bring goods to the show. This will have a significant impact on the amount of gems available to buy at the show, a necessary draw for international buyers.
“It will need more of a critical mass to guarantee success,” said American Gem Trade Association’s CEO, Doug Hucker, who attended the show as guest. “As we know, what attracts buyers are goods. I would like to see a much larger cooperation between regional governments to ensure it will work.”
Monica Gichuhi, CEO of the Kenya Chamber of Mines, said the potential for gem mining on a large scale in her country is also vast and they look forward to bringing more goods to the Arusha show.
“We need mechanization, support, and know-how,” she explained, “and we are looking for equitable partnerships. So for us, the AIGMF was an excellent forum to meet people and exchange ideas. I can also say that Kenya supports value addition.”
Another hot topic at the show was the debate among Tanzanians and gem dealers regarding the efficacy of a “certificate of origin” the country wishes to impose on the export of gem materials, particularly tanzanite, to curb illegal exports, or smuggling.
Critics point out that the added burdens and costs of the paperwork, not to mention fear of governmental interference, would only exacerbate illegal exports. Additionally, countries importing gems from Tanzania will have to sign bilateral agreements and ensure that certificates of origin actually accompany them, something not a single importing country has agreed to.
At the heart of the government’s intention is a desire to create a value-added industry in Tanzania. Officials acknowledge that most tanzanite rough is fashioned in Jaipur, India, a factor they would like to see reversed.
“We want the development of this sector to be industry-driven, but note that while it all begins right here in Tanzania, there are only a few hundred cutters here compared to several thousand in India,” Ngeleja explained. “This disparity needs to be overcome; what we are asking for is that the Indians become partners in helping us build business here in Tanzania and in East Africa.”
Kamau’s perseverance—her tenacity to become a gem dealer—paid off. She attributes this to close spiritual counsel from her mother, Grace Kamau; her mentor, minister Teresa Wairimu Kinyanjui; and advice and introductions from people she met in the business.
One was the late and legendary gem explorer and miner, Campbell Bridges, who discovered Kenya’s tsavorite garnet at Taita-Taveta (near Voi) decades ago. He introduced her to several people, including Judy Waigwa who gave Kamau her first lessons in mining and understanding gem rough. Waigwa also took her to Thailand, showing her the possibilities of transacting business on a grander scale.
Soon the young woman who eluded lions near the mines was conducting gem business as a broker and gem dealer. She met members of the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) including its Kenyan ambassador, Suzie Kennedy, who persuaded her to become an ICA member. “You have what it takes,” Kennedy told her.
Everyone she has come in contact with has taught her something new, she said, over time sharpening her business and gemological skills. And the baton has been passed: Kamau is today’s Kenyan ambassador to the ICA.
East Africa’s emerging position as one of the world’s important gem purveyors needs to remain strong as well as sustainable so its people, like Kamau, can thrive, too.
“In the 1960s, Africa was a very minor player on the world colored gemstone scene,” said Bill Larson, a gem dealer based in Fallbrook, California, who gave the keynote presentation on the history of East African gemstones at the AIGMF show. “Look at where you are today,” Larson told attendees. “You have gemstones that are exclusive to Africa, like tanzanite and tsavorite, but also very important sapphire and ruby deposits in recent years. And it has all come about relatively quickly.”
Infrastructure will be needed to build a value-added gem business in East Africa. Even if roads and cutting facilities are built, however, a truly skilled labor force remains elusive, and will only emerge as the need is defined.
At the fair, Colorado-based master gem cutter Stephen Avery donated his time to teaching faceting seminars and noted that attendance at his seminars was filled to the brim every day, underscoring a hunger for knowledge.
For its part, AIGMF has kicked off a vigorous campaign to raise funds to educate and empower small-scale miners and gem dealers—particularly women.
“We have commitments for about $75,000 from various segments to establish a panel to administer scholarships. Right now our focus is on empowerment for women; they have a greater need and are a very stable part of the labor force in Africa,” Suleman said.
The foundation is looking for ways people can learn gem cutting and jewelry making, which is the government of Tanzania’s over-arching goal. TanzaniteOne, the region’s large-scale mine for tanzanite, has contributed to the empowerment fund and said it is constructing a large facility for cutting tanzanite at the source.
While just the beginning of a change for East African gemstones, it is something tangible that will help the people of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia help themselves.
Kamau said that even though her living is modest, she feels blessed by the people she has met over time, and by the magnificent array of gems East Africa provides. She is especially grateful to those who are confident in her abilities, such as Intercolor USA’s Benjamin Hackman, who is as an important business mentor for her. “He is like a father to me.”
“I am giving back, too,” she said. “But what I give must be meaningful—so I am providing the teachers where I once went to school with textbooks. I can’t do this for all of the students, but I can do it for the teachers. I am also persuading local dairies and businesses to provide milk and food for the students throughout the year. If they are healthy, they can learn better.”
In many ways, Kamau’s idea is a model for how the gem business could be handled in East Africa. If you provide the tools and promote education, the trade will grow naturally.