A fair trade approach to Africa's diamonds
A US company brings fair trade principles to Africa's diamond industry and aims to improve the life of diamond miners.
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TCP: No. Profits are pretty high in this industry, and we don't need to charge extra to be able to reinvest. People are paying for the high-quality craftsmanship and the quality of the stone. We're just using our profits to build schools, where traditionally they would just make the middlemen and business men wealthier.Skip to next paragraph
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JM: It's hard to imagine why everyone wouldn't buy their engagement ring from you.
TCP: Ha! We couldn't agree more. When people hear about us, they almost universally respond very positively. Even critics, once we talk through our process and our vision, usually come around. But we are still small potatoes in this industry, and most people haven't heard of us. Although, we're happy to report that this is beginning to change.
JM: What's your capacity at this point?
TCP: Well, we're not entirely sure. We're actively building our capacity and refining our business process -- growth pains that any start-up faces. At some point we hope to grow enough to leave our day jobs and do this full time. But we think that's a ways off.
Currently there are limits on the diamonds coming from the mines we support. Since we are concerned with all of our raw material origins, our supply of specific diamonds (cut, clarity, size, color) is more limited than the open market, and this does affect our capacity to a degree.
JM: Do you want to outgrow your status as a self-described boutique company, or is there a limit to how far you can scale up a business like this?
TCP: At its heart, this is activism. Our mission is to maximize the benefit to small-scale miners. So we will try to grow as much as possible while adhering firmly to this mission. I'm not sure when a boutique stops being a boutique exactly, but growth itself is not our goal. We realize that our company will likely never come to dominate the industry in any significant sense. However we also realize that there is an important role to play for smaller, more nimble companies that are interested in pushing the industry in a more fair and transparent direction. And realistically, we think there always will be this role to play. Ideally, sure, it would be nice if in the future, companies like ours were the norm rather than the exception. But this is a long way off. And by putting pressure on the industry, we can generate much larger impact than we ever could by ourselves alone.
JM: There's a favorite cliche about the resource curse in Africa. It seems like you're trying to reverse that curse.
TCP: We are pretty idealistic but we are not blind idealists. We are trying to do the absolute best we can; to use our model, to apply our mission, to make the industry more fair and open, and to support people who are working really hard to provide for their families and pursue their goals. While there is a very long history of corruption and greed in this industry, as consumers, we must all take responsibility for the roles we play in this curse.
We would certainly like to become one of many models that can be employed by communities and organizations in poverty alleviation efforts. Beyond working with mines to implement socially fair and environmentally responsible practices (which in turn pressures the industry to raise the bar, benefiting even more people), there are at least four other initiatives that ideally we will use to help break the destructive cycle of resource extraction through reinvesting our profits. We have already begun working and contributing on the first two, I'm currently researching the third, and the fourth is soon to come:
- Building schools and providing educational opportunities for both children and adults allows people to move past the extraction industry -- education is key to any effort to reduce poverty.
- Rehabilitating old mining land and turning it into agricultural land provides new livelihood options and food that can help people stay in their communities rather than moving to city slums -- environmental degradation is a major factor in this mass migration.
- Funding microfinance programs can provide people with increasing alternatives to mining and new sources of income while helping teach people how to run small businesses.
- Opening health clinics can teach safe practices and provide resources for reducing illness, child-birth complications, and even simple injuries that can result in depressed wages or worse.