When the movie Blood Diamond hit the big screen in 2006, it left audiences feeling shocked. Women looked down at their engagement rings concerned theirs may be a conflict diamond, and husbands too found themselves wondering the exact same thing.
While the film raised awareness of how the trade in these diamonds by rebel forces have funded conflict and fuelled horrific violence in parts of West Africa over 15 years ago, the film also cast doubt on the whole industry, tarnishing even legitimately run diamond businesses.
The moral integrity of the entire global diamond industry came into question even though conflict diamonds represented just 4% of the world's diamond production at the time.
Eradicating conflict diamonds
In July 2000, the global diamond industry made its zero tolerance policy towards conflict diamonds clear - it committed to eliminating the trade in conflict diamonds to cut off funding for civil war and violence. Working closely with the United Nations, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada it created the Kimberley Process Certification System.
Formally adopted in 2003, the Kimberley Process guards against conflict diamonds entering the legitimate diamond supply chain and is the first international certification scheme for rough diamonds of its kind. Today 74 governments have enshrined the Kimberley Process Certification System into their laws, and now the vast majority of the worlds diamonds - approximately 99% - are from conflict-free sources and peaceful nations.
While the system is not perfect (and frankly, what system is?), third party verification and monitoring can help to ensure that companies are doing all they can to avoid the trade of illicit diamonds. The Kimberly Process Certification System, run jointly by governments, industry and civil society is a great start but continuous and rigorous improvement is needed to make it even more effective.
Diamonds Do Good
In 2006 hip hip entrepreneur and philanthropist Russell Simmons and social justice activist Dr. Ben Chavis travelled to Africa to learn more about the impacts of the diamond industry. They met with Nelson Mandela who encouraged them to report to the world the positive impacts that diamonds have in Africa.
The Diamond Empowerment Fund (D.E.F.) was established to help raise awareness of how diamond mining has positively impacted the lives of the people in the region.
In 2014, the D.E.F. launched the platform Diamonds Do Good to "support initiatives that develop and empower people in diamond communities worldwide." It's the side of the diamond mining industry that Blood Diamond failed to cover - the positive side.
Positive Social Impact
Can the mining industry have a positive social impact? Of course it can. It would be naive to think that our economies could flourish and develop products and services to meet global consumer demand, without the minerals and resources in the ground.
However mining should be done in the most responsible way possible. Companies should strive to minimise its negative impact on the environment and aim to maximise its benefits to people and communities.
So when the De Beers Group of Companies, including its world famous diamond brand Forevermark, launched the Zimele enterprise development initiative in 2009 (“Zimele” is a Nguni word that means to “stand on your own feet”) the response was overwhelmingly positive giving impoverished communities in Africa a glimmer of hope.
Trade not aid is a more sustainable means to ending poverty than charity hand outs. Breaking the cycle of dependence and empowering individuals towards financial independence is the key. By helping people in diamond communities start, promote and grow sustainable business, Zimele is playing an active role in developing a more prosperous South Africa. In just seven years, Zimele has supported 278 businesses and created more than 2,800 jobs.
There is one business success story that stands out from the rest. It's a story of a 51-year old illiterate woman, Mercy Sithagu who co-founded Sithagu Farm in 2007 with her sister (who has since passed away). Farming on 2.5 acres (one hectare) of land in the tiny village of Nwanedi in South Africa's Limpopp with just two employees, growing tomatoes, butternut squash, beans and watermelon. Farming is labour-intensive at the best of times, but at Sithagu, all farm work was still being done manually including digging holes and watering plants. The produce was enough to sell to individuals in the local community who would drive to the farm, but it was a continuous battle to run the business profitably.
Mercy wasn't sure how to expand the business and unable to read or write, went to a Department of Agriculture community workshop that focused on entrepreneurism where she learned about the Zimele program. With their mentorship, Mercy was able to take out a loan in 2012, to purchase farm inputs such as seedlings, fertiliser and pesticides. She was able to pay it back in 2013 and took out another loan to purchase a tractor and an irrigation systems. Increased mechanisation and proper irrigation helped save time and increased production, catapulting business growth.
If it weren't for Zimele, Mercy feels should wouldn't have been able to take her business to the next level. "My mentor taught me how to work with people and manage my employees better," she says. He also taught her skills in negotiation, pricing strategy, bookkeeping and cash flow management.
Today, Mercy is farming on 37 acres (15 hectares) of productive land, employs 10 people (increasing to 20 during harvest) and instead of serving only individuals in her community, she also sells to large contractors. "My employees inspire me to run a very productive business,” says Mercy. “If I fail myself, I know I fail them. I want the business to keep flourishing so they can put bread on their tables.”
In 2012 Mercy was named "Female Farmer of the Year" by Musina, her municipality, the Vhembe District's department of agriculture and Limpopo's provincial department of agriculture for growing high-quality foods. "I was very excited," says Mercy. "Since I never went to school, it felt like it was my graduation day.”
While there are those who denounce corporate social responsibility programs as nothing more than a PR exercise, any positive steps companies make that benefit people or the environment should be applauded. This does not mean they should escape criticism if they do the wrong thing, but rather, that there should be recognition when they do the right thing. So a round of applause is deserved on this occasion.
One can't help but wonder, however, whether taking out loans for fertilisers and pesticides - a common practice in the third and developing worlds - is the best use of borrowed funds. Given the high farmer suicide rates over crippling debt particularly in countries such as India, conventional farming can have unintended consequences.
While it is inspiring to see Mercy rise above her circumstances, work to become self-sufficient and employ and empower others, the aim moving forward should not just be to grow fresh vegetables to supply to the community or local supermarkets, but to grow vegetables without depleting the soil nutrients and ruining the land.
Organic and sustainable farming practices may be something she will need to look into as her agribusiness evolves.
With what Mercy has achieved in a short period of time, there is little doubt that she will do whatever it takes to help her business, employees and community not just survive, but thrive.
For more information about Diamonds Do Good, click here.
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