The Green Earth

Although the Kagem mine is the largest single producer, a government-mandated concession area allows 430 artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) to operate.

“In mining for emeralds, the difficulties are significant, with the biggest challenge [being] finding investors to provide equipment,” says Susan Wheeler of Virtu Gem. The nonprofit platform partners with mining associations to offer members a conduit for selling gems at a fair price to international markets. Virtu Gem places a 20% premium on the cost of the stones, which then goes back to the mining association for local assistance programs.

When mining stopped during Covid-19, Virtu Gem supported food drives, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other help for the mining communities. “When it comes to responsible sourcing for ASM, what is responsible for us is seeing them wear hardhats,” says Wheeler. “What is responsible for them is being able to feed themselves.”

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Virtu gem is not-for-profit initiative to sell gems, sourced from artisanal miners, to jewelers and thus help the mining community. Prior to Covid-19, I was working with two colleagues, Monica Gichuhi and Jessica Hudson on our second collaboration, which was supposed to be AGEC Africa’s conference in Zambia during the Summer of 2020. When the pandemic hit, we had to cancel the conference. Thanks to our existing relationships with mining and trade organizations, people who were going to exhibit gems at the conference could now show them online, thus we were able to quickly transform the planning of this physical event into the beginning stages of the Virtu Gem project as a timely response to a call to action from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):  Emergency Action Needed for Vulnerable Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining Communities & Supply Chains

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This Virtual Market Is Connecting Artisanal Miners with Buyers

By Brecken Branstrator

Realizing the immediate need for a marketplace for Zambian miners without access to international buyers during the pandemic, AGEC founder Monica Gichuhi partnered with The Responsible Jewelry Transformative, the Federation of Small Scale Mining Associations of Zambia, The Association of Zambian Women in Mining and The Nomad Jeweler on a digital project called Virtu Gem.

It aims to help ASM miners sell their rough gemstones as well as raise money to give back to the mining communities.

Through it, buyers are purchasing gemstones directly from the federation, which sources stones from its vetted miner members. The group behind the marketplace also has local cutter partners so buyers can choose to get their gemstones cut in country.

Twenty percent of the proceeds from stones sold on Virtu Gem go back to mining communities for food drives and purchasing protective gear.

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ASM and the COVID-19 Impact

By Brecken Branstrator

Since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Africa Gem Exhibition and Conference in Zambia this year, which would’ve helped connect artisanal miners with gem dealers and jewelers from around the world, Gichuhi says she knew they needed to find a way to bring the market to them.

She worked with Susan Wheeler, a jewelry designer and founder of The Responsible Jewelry Transformative, as well as the Federation of Small Scale Mining Associations of Zambia and other partners to launch a digital platform for rough stones called Virtu Gem.

Several larger traditional dealers have been skeptical—and critical—about doing business online.

“But instead of doubting each other,” Gichuhi says, “we are hoping we can form partner collaborations that can eliminate doubt and create trust in the supply chain to really reinforce this way of doing business. If it’s going to take more than one year for people to travel and do business, this might be how [the miners] will get back to trade.”

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