If you want to shine, sometimes you just have to take the plunge. It is by taking this attitude that the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) distinguishes itself when it comes to sustainability, specifically by focusing on corporate social responsibility in Africa.
Following the success of the first development cooperation project in Sierra Leone, run by the Belgian company Cap Conseil and supported by the AWDC - which resulted in the fair trade jewelry collection, My Fair Diamond - Antwerp is now looking forward to the arrival of responsibly-mined diamonds from Guinea.
As the leading wholesale trade center for rough diamonds, last year Antwerp imported 184 million carats of the precious stones, 85% of which are unearthed in industrial diamond mines. The remaining 15% originates in small-scale and artisanal mines such as are commonly found in Sierra Leone and Guinea, among other African countries. “Compared to industrial diamond mines, it is much more difficult in areas with numerous artisanal mines to monitor whether or not the value chain is contaminated by potential risks, such as child labor, human rights violations or unsafe working conditions,” explains Head of External and Public Affairs Karla Basselier, who is leading the AWDC’s efforts for sustainable diamond mining and sourcing.
“By working together with the local communities we can increase the supply of artisanally-mined diamonds to Antwerp. We see sustainability as our USP that sets us apart from competing trade centers like Dubai and Mumbai. In this way, we can also be a facilitator for small and mid-size diamond companies that often struggle to stay on the path of sustainability.”
It starts with the idea that Antwerp wants to be a diamond trade center where artisanally-mined diamonds are welcome. “But only as long as everyone in the supply chain has taken measures to mitigate the risks associated with it,” Basselier continued. “In the past, we lost out on the supply of artisanally-mined diamonds to other trade centers because they were less strict when it came to conducting the necessary controls on the origin of those stones. We want to regain that market share without compromising on our best practices criteria. And in doing so, we want to help the local communities by reaching out and partnering with them.”
In 2015, the AWDC put its full support behind a first development cooperation project in Sierra Leone, initiated by Belgian sustainability consultancy Cap Conseil. “In collaboration with the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), we succeeded in certifying local diamond mines. This provided everyone in the value chain with the guarantee that the mines were not linked to money laundering activities, corruption or unsafe working conditions. We then brought the artisanal diamonds to Antwerp to polish them locally and give them an Antwerp design,” said Karla Basselier in reference to the My Fair Diamond jewelry collection. “When creating this first collection, the logic that guides the standard way of working was turned upside-down. Typically, a jewelry house begins a collection with the design and then searches for the right stones to create it. We, on the contrary, started with a number of diamonds and let them be the guide when developing the design. This time, to increase the scale of the project, we went looking across the border in Guinea.”
Specifically, the AWDC ended up in the Kérouané Prefecture in the Kankan Region, a 17-hour drive from the capital Conakry. This region consists of mines of a quality comparable to those in Sierra Leone, but which are still not certified. The AWDC's feasibility study showed that, together with local partners, a chain of custody could be established to enable the marketing in Antwerp of diamonds mined in that region and, what is more, that could provide the end consumer with the iron-clad guarantee of a sustainable product.
“Most Western African countries score low on the transparency index, so you know that you will face challenges there regarding corruption, among other difficulties. We cannot let this deter us from attempting to generate a positive impact. We have proposed a number of standards the mine must meet. Safety and decent working conditions without child labor are at the top of the list."
"Consumers often associate a diamond with a fantastic occasion in their lives. This is why it is all the more important that every facet of that diamond shines,” Basselier adds. “As soon as the mine meets those requirements, we can purchase from them. Each party along the value chain receives their fair share of the pie. A percentage of the sales will flow directly back to the local community so they can reap the benefits of the collaboration. In this way, diamonds serve as a catalyst for development cooperation. Taking this approach, we are also responding to Gen Y and Z, who look expressly for products that have a demonstrable added value on an economic level, as well as with regards to sustainability.”
A few steps still have to be made before completely traceable fair-trade diamonds can flow from Guinea to consumers and major diamond jewelry brands via the AWDC. “We have already explained the concept on-site twice. This year we intend to spend the time to build up the value chain. We are investing 200,000 euro of our own funds in this. It is the same amount we received from a fund to facilitate sustainable development objectives, which is also targeted for this project. Interested partners are also welcome to participate,” she added. “If we can create an uninterrupted chain in accordance with our values, the sale of sustainably-mined diamonds from Guinea can start in 2021."
Concerning proper labor conditions, Ms. Basselier said, "things are already looking good. We have not seen any child labor. A system of traceability has been created, however, in such artisanal circumstances it comes down to passing on all sorts of notes and working on more or less demarcated little parcels of land without a fully-documented paper trail. We want to continue working on top of the existing structure. The challenge is to give it a more transparent and more documented form, and to get the local miners on board. That local miner must also be willing to sell exclusively to us to avoid that the supply chain could be contaminated. To continuously be able to verify the integrity of the chain will require that, in addition to a local partner, we have our own representative on site.”
Ultimately, the commercial success of the AWDC’s Guinea adventure will depend on the volume of diamond production achieved. “In contrast to industrial mines, in an artisanal environment one is never certain of the output, while diamond traders that work through a wholesale center like Antwerp demand a degree of certainty in this regard,” Ms. Basselier explains. “The diamond production in Sierra Leone was rather modest and, in the meantime, it has been scooped up by the De Beers mining company through its Gemfair initiative. Being innovative always carries the risk that someone will capture your success. This only emphasizes the value of that project. And if it works in Guinea, we can also copy this model and apply it to other artisanal diamond areas.”
This interview was first published in Ondernemers magazine, March 2020, by Jan Van de Poel.