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De Beers’ GemFair ropes in more than 160 Sierra Leone artisanal miners

16 august 2021

gemfair_logo_xx.pngDe Beers inaugurated its GemFair pilot programme in Sierra Leone’s Kono District with 14-member mine sites in 2018 to create a secure route to market for ethically sourced artisanal and small-scale diamonds.

GemFair programme manager Ruby Stocklin-Weinberg told Rough&Polished’s Mathew Nyaungwa in an exclusive interview that the registered members working with De Beers in the district have now grown to 160.

She said through their miner training programme, they had trained a total of 1,049 individuals on fair labour standards and safer and environmentally responsible working practices.

De Beers said they only purchase diamonds from artisanal and small-scale mined sources that are extracted, processed and transported responsibly and legitimately.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

Can you shed more light on your operations as GemFair?

GemFair is a pilot programme operating in Sierra Leone. GemFair started operations in 2018 in the Kono District, Sierra Leone with 14 registered mine sites… While Covid-19 impacted our ability to onboard new members in 2020, we are now actively recruiting again and look forward to continuing to further expand GemFair’s membership and impact in helping formalise the ASM sector and improve the livelihoods of those working in the sector.

In 2020 we were also pleased to enter into an MoU with the Mano River Union (MRU) and German Development Corporation (GIZ) to expand our ASM training programme and tailor it to government and civil society trainers, delivering a unique 'training-of-trainers’ programme for stakeholders in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. This collaboration will also enable us to build regional capacity on diamond fundamentals and valuation.

To what extent was the GemFair programme affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Covid-19 had a significant impact on GemFair’s operations in 2020, profoundly impacting the operating environment in Sierra Leone, as well as the global diamond market. In addition, border closures and travel restrictions meant GemFair’s rough diamond purchasing was suspended for a period. Despite these challenges, GemFair continued to engage with the ASM sector in Kono to identify ways in which GemFair could actively support the community during the pandemic. While GemFair’s operational focus in 2020 shifted to one of community support, we also developed a new ‘on-demand’ training programme, drawing on our existing GemFair digital platform and the tablets provided to our members, tailored for a low-bandwidth environment. As a result, we can now reach hundreds of people living in remote communities that are hard to reach through more traditional, classroom-based training methods. The team also used the time to focus on refining the programme and preparing for other activities, such as the provision of technical support including providing miners with access to a mechanized wash plant.

What is De Beers doing to assist the participating Artisanal and small-scale diamond miners in the face of the pandemic?

Since the outset of the pandemic, GemFair prioritised support for its members and this became the programme's core operational focus throughout most of 2020. While Sierra Leone has so far largely been spared the rates of Covid-19 infections experienced in many other parts of the world, the global interruption in supply chains of everything from food to diamonds had a significant economic impact on artisanal mining communities. In early 2020, GemFair conducted an assessment of miners needs in the context of the pandemic, which identified that food security was a very real concern for miners and their communities due to border closures and a poor harvest season. GemFair responded by developing a programme to deliver food parcels to its member mine sites, which continued for 10 months. In total, GemFair delivered 4,700 food parcels to 1,715 individuals (and their independents).

In addition to delivering food parcels, we also made a large donation of PPE to the local hospital to help protect front-line workers, which included thousands of medical masks and other personal protective equipment. We also established five portable handwashing stations. Finally, we assisted with public health education about the pandemic by donating radio airtime for health officials to hold live Q&A sessions on Covid-19 with remote communities, as well as repurposing the GemFair digital solution to send out Covid-19 health guidance from the World Health Organisation to our members.

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Image credit: De Beers

How many miners are now participating in the programme?

Since starting with 14-member mine sites at launch, today GemFair has more than 160 registered members in the Kono District, Sierra Leone. Through our miner training programme, we've trained a total of 1,049 individuals on fair labour standards and safer and environmentally responsible working practices. We've also equipped more than 200 miners with the skills they need to respond to accidents and emergencies on site. Our training offering includes face to face workshops, virtual lessons and mentoring on standards at each mine site.

What is the level of interest in GemFair from miners that are not part of the programme?

GemFair has been well received by the ASM sector in Kono District, Sierra Leone and we have had strong levels of interest from miners wishing to participate in the programme, so we are always expanding our membership base. This involves working closely with miners who express their interest to participate in GemFair to assess that they meet the programme’s requirements in the first instance and then ensuring they participate in the relevant onboarding processes and ongoing training and monitoring that are required to be part of GemFair. We have certainly seen an uptick in interest from miners over the past 18 months as well; whereas at first, the majority of our members heard about us through our community outreach campaigns, now miners are learning about us through word of mouth and approaching our staff to join the program.

What factors do you consider when recruiting miners?

GemFair will only purchase diamonds from artisanal and small-scale mined sources that are extracted, processed and transported responsibly and legitimately. To participate in GemFair, miners must comply with GemFair's ASM Assurance Programme. The Programme is based on several leading best practice standards for sourcing from the ASM sector, including the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for the Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk [Zones] and De Beers Group's proprietary Best Practice Principles, as well as elements that are specific to GemFair’s unique business model.

Once approved to join the programme, artisanal miners are provided with the necessary training and dedicated hardware (tablet, diamond valuation toolkit) and software (GemFair app) to participate in the programme, ensuring any production they wish to sell to GemFair is fully traceable and complies with GemFair's standards. Our staff also regularly visit mine sites throughout the year to monitor working conditions, business practices and environmental impact. We also commission third party audits of GemFair's management system every 18 months.

Why did you choose to have this pilot programme in West Africa where you don’t have any mining operations instead of southern Africa?

GemFair is focused on helping to formalise the artisanal and small-scale mining sector by providing a secure route-to-market for ethically sourced ASM diamonds, while uplifting standards and improving livelihoods in the sector. Sierra Leone was chosen as the location for the GemFair pilot as it has a large ASM sector and several mine sites were already participating in the Diamond Development Initiative's (DDI) Maendeleo Diamond StandardsTM programme, which is also aligned with the GemFair ASM Standard, so there was an initial membership base to build from. In addition, significant advancements have been made by the Government of Sierra Leone to formalise the ASM sector following the civil conflict that ended in 2002, so the GemFair pilot also offers an opportunity to help showcase the country’s progress and associated positive development impact of the ASM sector. However, one of the aims of the pilot is to establish scalable models that ensure responsible and ethical sourcing of ASM production, so it is our strong hope that the reach and impact of GemFair will, in time, benefit other ASM communities beyond Sierra Leone.

You previously indicated that De Beers had started integrating some GemFair diamonds onto the Tracr platform and the group was in the process of testing that integration as the diamonds pass through the value chain. Can you provide an update on this?

GemFair’s bespoke digital solution combined with the Tracr platform, which is underpinned by encrypted blockchain technology, ensures that diamonds purchased by GemFair can be traced from the mine site where they were discovered and throughout the value chain. This traceability is a standard part of GemFair’s ASM Assurance Programme.

Mathew Nyaungwa, Editor in Chief of the African Bureau, Rough&Polished