Mining companies working with villagers in harsh environments can occasionally create opportunities for growth and empowerment. And the small band of women digging pits an hour’s drive from the nondescript town of Karoi in Zimbabwe, may be one such example. They are leading an economic revolution at Zimbaqua — which the company claims is Africa’s first sustainable all-female mine.

Rumbidzai Gwinji, 34, is in charge here, as the mine’s manager. She is one of the 35 women miners at Zimbaqua — founded and funded by Iver Rosenkrantz, 44 and Patrick Tendayi Zindoga, 41, along with two like-minded Danish friends. “We are changing the narrative and proving that even one of the most male-dominated industries can be championed by women,” says Rosenkrantz. “These women are happy and supportive of each other and work towards a common goal with no short gains in focus.”

Gwinji and her co-workers have the two founders to thank for their economic independence. Danish-born Rosenkrantz and Zimbabwe-born Zindoga had spent a year buying stones from artisanal miners in Karoi and the surrounding areas. They say they got to know the people in the community. “We saw, for ourselves, just how much these women struggled — there are no job opportunities here.”

So, Rosenkrantz and Zindoga set out to change that. They first secured a mining licence for 50 hectares of land and then began recruiting workers for the Zimbaqua mine in 2019.

“We believe there is a need for change and inclusivity. Unemployment in rural areas of Zimbabwe is a big challenge, thus, opportunities for women are very few.”

female employees of Zimbaqua
Since its opening, Zimbaqua has mined nearly 50 tonnes of industrial aquamarine

Having observed that alcohol abuse and domestic abuse was common in the region, the two founders felt that, in order to make a difference in the community, they had to turn the women into breadwinners. The women gain mining skills, rebuild their lives — and enter the workforce.

For Gwinji, her job at the aquamarine mine ensures a steady pay cheque. “I have become financially independent,” she says. “Our all-women [team] is a great deal here. I have seen lives change, especially, for the women in our community.”

Artisanal mining accounts for more than 80 per cent of the minerals mined in Africa, says Rosenkrantz, a lawyer-turned-gemmologist and entrepreneur. Since its opening, Zimbaqua has mined nearly 50 tonnes of industrial aquamarine, 50 tonnes of beryl, and 5 tonnes of quartz, among other minerals. “Finding gem-quality aquamarine isn’t as easy as people think. I know of other mines that have produced far less than we have at Zimbaqua,” says Rosenkrantz.

The top quality aquamarine — referred to as a “double blue” in the gem industry — fetches anywhere between $500-$1,000 per carat. About 10 kilogrammes of varied gem quality aquamarine has been mined so far; the low grade stones account for nearly 3 tonnes. “The biggest crystal we mined weighed 160 grammes and was sawed into a few gems; the biggest single stone we cut was 76 carats — a top quality gem,” says Rosenkrantz. There is generally a lot of singing and dancing at the mine, but when the women miners hit a pocket, it turns into a party.

Rutendo Chigwajara, 43, a mother of three, worked on tobacco farms and subsisted on the $300-$400 she made in a year. She struggled to put food on the table and keep her children in school. “My children were often kicked out of school,” recalls Chigwajara. The local primary school fee of $15 a term and the secondary school of $45 a term is unaffordable for these women. “Many of them are single mothers or divorcees and have little or no education,” says Rosenkrantz. In her early days at the mine, Chigwajara worked as a pit worker. Having been promoted since, she now earns nearly $3,000 a year.

Jewellery designers are rallying around Zimbaqua in an effort to connect directly with the source of the semi-precious stones. They are keen to keep things as transparent as possible. Among them is Felix Köck, managing director at Vienna-based jewellery brand Von Köck, who uses Zimbaqua’s aquamarines to craft luxury jewels and bespoke pieces for his clients. “I decided to collaborate with Zimbaqua because it gives these women a chance to rebuild their lives — it gives them a job, fair wage and opportunities.”

British jewellery designer Daniella Draper is also a beneficiary of the Zimbaqua gemstones. “I was hugely inspired by what they were doing. Not only are the aquamarines from Zimbaqua incredibly beautiful, but they also have an amazing story — that of empowerment, liberation and honesty.”

Jeweller Von Köck uses Zimbaqua’s aquamarines

Elaborating on Zimbaqua’s open-pit mining, Rosenkrantz says: “In comparison to tunnel mining, the way we mine is very low impact and much safer.” Discussing the environmental impacts, he explains: “We do not use chemicals and merely dig holes that we cover up afterwards. We support the community in the best way possible.”

Poised to launch a jewellery line, using aquamarines from the mine, Rosenkrantz is exploring myriad ways to make the mine profitable.

“On the anvil, once budget constraints are sorted, is the Zimbaqua Vision project and community centre that would offer training in gem cutting, jewellery making, arts, crafts, paediatric clinic, pre-school, and accommodation for volunteers.”

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