Following Malawi’s traceable gemstones to Japan after 10 years

The gemstones at charity jewelry sold by R ethical are sourced from the Republic of Malawi, a country located in the southeast of Africa and situated more than 10 kilometers from Japan. We interviewed Ms. Mai Suzuki, a board member of Diamonds for Peace Liberia, about the background of gemstone mining in Malawi. She was working as an Overseas Cooperation Volunteer of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and supporting a mining cooperative in Malawi.

—When did you stay in Malawi? And what kind of business were you engaged in?

It was in September 2010 that I was living in Mzimba district in the north of Malawi, and I worked for two years as a “community development extension worker” for JICA’s Overseas Cooperation Volunteer Program. I was assigned to the agri-business section of the Office of Agriculture in the district and was engaged in the business of helping farmers improve their livelihood.

The first step in my involvement with Malawi’s mining cooperatives was when I saw the sign for the “Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative” in the Mzimba district where I was living and so I visited its office. At that time, JICA was supporting the project “One Village One Product (OVOP)”, and this cooperative was a part of it.

In Malawi, there are several mining cooperatives that received JICA’s support in the OVOP project. Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative is one of them. This cooperative uses machines to cut and polish the stones mined in Mzimba. But, as their cutting and polishing skills are limited, and parts such as chains and clasps are not sufficiently available in Malawi, it was difficult for them to add additional value to their gemstones to sell them as jewelry products. What they could do in most cases was only a slight arrangement to the shape of the gemstones, and they had to sell them to buyers in this format.

I asked myself what I could do to help them improve such a situation. I supported them to participate in a trade fair held in the capital city of Malawi, to exhibit their products. I further planned and organized a mine tour for Japanese and foreign residents (expatriates) in Malawi in order to help them deepen their understanding of the situation about gemstone mining in Malawi and to stimulate their interest in supporting it.

An amethyst mine in Malawi (photo by Mai Suzuki)

–What kind of gemstones are mined in Malawi? And where are they mainly sold?

In Malawi, gemstones such as aquamarine, amethyst, garnet, sardonyx, quartz, tourmaline etc. are mined. These are exported to such countries as South Africa, Thailand, China etc. and are mainly sold to be used to make jewelries/ accessories.

In most cases, buyers from China, India, Congo etc. directly visit the mines to buy the stones in cash. As the miners are not sure when will be the next chance to sell their stones and to get some cash, they tend to sell them at low prices even if it is not the price they want to sell. I hear there are some expatriates and foreign volunteers visiting the cooperatives to buy the stones, but there is no cooperative yet who is making a commercial transaction with Japan.

—Who are the diggers of gemstone mines in Malawi?

The diggers are people who are employed by the miners and are engaged in the mining operation. It is the miner that sells the stones mined by the diggers. Not only men but also women have the artisanal mining licenses. Many of the license holders go to the mine to dig the stones themselves. The president of Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative likewise possesses the artisanal mining license, while his main job actually is a furniture artisan. As a side business, he has been mining at an aquamarine mine and cutting the stones himself.

The diggers are people of various backgrounds including local inhabitants as well as those who come from other towns. Their situation looks like the one which Diamonds for Peace has been observing in Liberia. The diggers in Malawi typically receive food and low wages for their mining operation. When the stones are sold, they get a part of the profit from the miner. But from the whole profit, food expenses and rental costs of mining machines etc. are deducted by the miner, so the diggers don’t get a fair share. This means they are not sufficiently paid for their work. Furthermore, if the mine is situated far from the town, they have to stay in the mountain areas where they build their shacks to live in and are frequently more exposed to infectious diseases. Sometimes the license holders get deceived by the buyers and cannot receive the payment from them. There are even some diggers who ignore the system and dare to sell the stones themselves (only the license holders are supposed to sell the stones).

As in Liberia, one of the most important things to improve the license holders’ and diggers’ lives in Malawi is strengthening the negotiation skills of the cooperative. Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative has been inviting miners and diggers to join the cooperative, while at the same time taking the responsibility for selling the mined stones and negotiating with various buyers for the purpose of raising the selling price as well as elevating the transparency of the system.

Diggers mining at an amethyst mine in Malawi (photo by Mai Suzuki)

–Did you have any notable experiences while supporting the mining cooperative in Malawi?

Yes, the mine tour held by Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative. In order to increase the number of people to understand about gemstones in Mzimba, I planned the tour in cooperation with my colleagues with the Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. While visiting the mine, the participants experienced grinding the gemstones themselves and even received some stones as a souvenir.

We organized the mining tour twice. The second tour was made up not only of Japanese volunteers (including JICA’s Overseas Cooperation Volunteers) but also volunteers from the Philippines and Malawian NGO members who are interested in mining. The participants learned about the situation of mine workers. And thanks to the tour being publicized among the expatriates, some who didn’t join the tour bought the polished gemstones as souvenirs before going back to their countries. I think the members of the cooperative, who organized the tour together with us, could believe “there are some  things they can do themselves”.

Mr. Chikomene Manda, a marketing staff of the cooperative (at an amethyst mine) (photo by Mai Suzuki)

— What do you expect from the charity jewelry sales of this occasion?

It was in 2010 that I met the members of Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative. Ten years after that, I am now finally able to present the “stones from Malawi” to Japan. I am really glad about it.

I hope these gemstones will give many people the opportunity to learn about Malawi miners and diggers, which may lead them to have curiosity about what’s happening at mines around the world.

One of the charity jewelry made with aquamarine mined in Malawi (photo by R ethical)


Front photo: Mai with the members of Mzimba gemstone mining cooperative (photo by Mai Suzuki, published under the kind permission of the cooperative members). The second from the right is the president of the cooperative, Mr. Gama, who mined the aquamarine that was used for the charity jewelry of this occasion