Malawian gemstone business and its challenges
By Jephter Ngwira
In Malawi, residents living in Traditional Authority Mazengera, Lilongwe, collect gemstones as they go about their farming. They also are involved in mining on a small scale after harvesting their crops. This takes place mainly along Lilongwe River, and Nathenje and Nanjiri streams. After collecting these semi-precious stones, which are mostly garnets, these farmers-cum-miners sell the stones locally and internationally. They are able to support their families by buying soap, salt, sugar, and medicines, and to pay their children’s school fees.These semi-precious gems are sold per gram or per piece if found in excellent quality and per kilogram in medium and low qualities. For example, a 3 gram piece of rhodolite can fetch as high as US$ 20 per gram.
In 2013, Jephter Ngwira partnered with Ales Patrick of Ravenstein Gems Co, who also runs St. Claire Gems and Pana Mine in USA, by marketing these Malawian-mined stones in China, USA, Britain, India and Sri Lanka.
In Tucson, Arizona, USA, a gemstone show takes place at the beginning of each year. IT is a chance for international buyers and suppliers of minerals meet. In the 2015/2016 show, Jephter Ngwira was invited to exhibit red garnets, rhodolite garnets, and pyrope garnets which are also being mined in Salima. Other stones also exhibited were ruby and sapphires from Ntcheu as well as aquamarine from Kafukule in Mzimba.
The trip benefitted a lot of small-scale miners especially women in various villages because now they have larger and more stable market. Actually, most gemstones being found along the rivers are mined by women. They really need support in marketing their stones.
In the past, when buyers from Tanzania or Zambia came to buy gemstones from Malawi and when they took these to Tanzania and Zambia, they would market them as Tanzanian and Zambian products respectively. As a result, Malawian stones were not well known on the international market.
Malawian local miners of garnets and other gems face numerous challenges including the lack of proper mining skills which results in accidents when mining , and inadequacy of equipment and safety equipment and clothes. The government must also introduce group licences for mining as most small scale miners do not have licences from the Department of Mines.
There are no frequent local gemstones shows or training. Consequently, most of the gemstones being mined in Malawi are exported unpolished or without being faceted. We do not have a gemology academy in Malawi to teach people how to select and grade gems, to cut and facet stones, or even how to identify other new gems discovered. Fortunately, the Malawi University of Science and Technology is now offering undergraduate courses in mining. We hope program to teach gemology will soon be introduced. In addition, in the absence of a skilled workforce, some people take advantage and sell synthetic stones like ruby and sapphires.
We strongly believe if these challenges can be resolved, gemstone business can be very helpful economically in supporting rural families in particular. And government will generate much needed revenue from the royalties.
In Malawi, mining and gemstones business can complement agribusiness especially tobacco farming. Tobacco farming remains the main earner for foreign exchange but due to the World Health Organisation’s regulations and global anti-smoking campaigns, its demand is declining.
Mzuzu-born Jephter Ngwira (Dip.), the author of this piece, runs East Gate Mining with two friends. They are prospecting in Dowa, Mchinji and Lilongwe. He has partnered with Ales Krivanek of Ravenstein Gem Co., which also has the subsidiary Ravenstein Gems, registered in Malawi, to buy stones.
Originally with a background in pharmacy and experience in the health sector, Ngwira developed a passion for minerals in 2013. He plans to attain a qualification in gemology and open an academy and laboratory in Malawi. He also would like to run a non-profit to teach his fellow youth how to run a small business in gems in order to reduce unemployment, which is very high in Malawi.
In June this year, Ngwira organised a training with the Gemstones Association of Malawi. The main facilitators were Rodger and Ginger Dery from Michigan, USA, who own Spectral Gems.