Gemstones are some of the most prized minerals in the world, but Zambia has not yet found a way of capitalizing on the vast mineral deposits that exist there. In fact, according to the former Minister Wilbur Simuusa “the gemstone sector can contribute about $700 million annually if properly managed.” However, according to the Discussion Paper published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Capturing Mineral Revenues in Zambia: Past Trends and Future Prospects,” only $232 million was generated from exports of gemstones in Zambia in 2012 and including gold, “total exports from non-traditional minerals stood at about $330 million.”
With a mining sector largely dominated by copper, few realize that Zambia is one of the largest emerald producers in the world, along with Brazil and Colombia. In fact, the world’s biggest emerald producer, Gemfields, mines from Kagem emerald mine in the Zambian Copperbelt province. This mine covers an area of approximately 41sqkm, and is the world’s single largest producer of emeralds with approximately 20% of global emerald production.
Emerald production is not only remarkable in quantity but also in quality. Zambian emeralds are rich in iron and have a higher refractive index (RI), which is one of the most important characteristics in a gemstone. RI is defined as “the difference between the speed of light in a vacuum and the speed of light in the gemstone.” Gemstones with a higher RI are more brilliant that those with a low RI. According to one industry professional, Zambian emeralds are “particularly chromium-rich with a pleasing color, and also relatively better in quality and size. Many Zambian gemstones are sold around the world naturally, without inclusion treatments.”
Besides emeralds, Zambia is rich in other gemstones such as aquamarines, tourmalines, amethysts, clean-pink morganite, beryl, and garnets. Not far from the Kagem mine, Gemfields has a 50% stake in another world-famous mine, Kariba. This site produces up to 800 tons of amethysts on a yearly basis, and its market share has been estimated at over 90% of the Zambian amethyst market. According to Raj Sharma, Managing Director of Jewel of Africa, Zambian amethysts are “referred to as Siberian Amethyst [due to their ] flashes of red or blue, and a rich purple color.” He mentioned that their old mine in Mkushi was producing tourmalines “in various hues from green to blue, blue-green, pink and green, and watermelon, which is green on the outside and pink on the inside.” Vasu Reddy, Owner of Bobbili Gems, agrees with Mr. Sharma regarding the quality of gemstones: “Zambia produces probably the best emeralds in the world. Our aquamarines and tourmalines are also of a very high quality.” He argues that one of the best ways of attracting further investment into the industry is to properly map the country “to identify and classify areas as mineral zones and invite people to start extracting there, allowing the country to create more gemstone zones.”
Another challenge within the industry is the lack of specialized human resources. Incentives should be established to develop the value chain with local companies for the treatment of gemstones. Currently most of the gemstones production is exported and just a small amount is cut or refined in Zambia.
Over the past few years, the government has been trying to promote the diversification of the mining sector to reduce its reliance on the copper industry through the Mining Sector Diversification Project. Gemstone mining is an industry that could generate new employment opportunities and alleviate poverty, especially because there are still a significant number of small artisanal miners in rural areas that extract gemstones with rudimentary equipment. With the appropriate training, the government could create new jobs and boost the production of gemstones in the country and its contribution to the GDP. It is time to kill two birds with one gemstone.