Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Determined to Mine

Dorcas Nyambu is living her dream as owner of a tsavorite mine in Kenya.

By Sheryl Jones

Dorcas Nyambu
In the early morning hours, while the day is still cool, pure green glittering gemstones are removed from the rich, red earth by miners in southeast Kenya. The stones are tsavorite garnets, named after the Tsavo National Park region where they were discovered in 1967 by Campbell Bridges, a British gemologist.
   Bridges paid for his passion for these stones with his life in 2009, when claim jumpers killed him on his property, the Scorpion mine. Tsavorite, like many other stones throughout the world, is mined amid violence. But what makes the gemstone so worth the risk that a young woman decided to become owner of a mine located less than 2 miles from Bridges’ Scorpion mine?
   At 35 years old, Dorcas Nyambu is living her life’s dream as chief executive officer (CEO) of Kambanga Mining Ltd. It began 20 years ago, when her father, Gabriel Mwandoe Nyambu, bought a large property containing several mines, which he named Kambanga Mines. He had six children, four girls and two boys. In a country and industry where mining is traditionally a man’s job, it would seem as though this family would only have two members to follow the father into the family business. But one of his daughters, Dorcas, had a dream in her heart that defied convention: she wanted to run the mine.
   The journey from a child growing up around a mine to becoming a woman mine owner was long and difficult. “Since I was a little girl, I always wanted to work in the mine. As a child, after school, my father would teach me how to sort and polish the stones that came from the mine,” says Nyambu. But he was very apprehensive about how his soft-spoken daughter would command respect and loyalty in a practically all-male industry.
   In 2005, Nyambu began working full time at the mine under her father’s watchful eye and learned the business, but he was still concerned about whether she was aggressive enough to succeed in the mining industry. She eventually proved herself to him through her resolve. Finally, in 2013, he agreed to let her run the mine. “My determination really impressed him. He was very proud of me,” she says.

Facing Danger
   But the real challenge began for Nyambu after her father’s death. Workers who had supported him and had experience in the operations of the mine were not helpful after he was gone. “There was a lack of guidance on the ground. People didn’t feel free to talk to me or take orders from me because I am a woman,” says Nyambu. The combination of taking over an operation with people who had a relationship and loyalty to her father and the fact that she is a woman made her job very difficult. Without her father, she experienced just how dangerous mining could be. “Once the miners went on strike and I was left alone at the mine for two days, but I couldn’t leave. I called my mom and one of my relatives came to stay with me until I could hire more workers. Another time, the property was invaded by 20 men who refused to leave the tsavorite mine. They were employed by a very wealthy man to loot the mine and stayed for almost four months. The person sponsoring them tried to take me to court, accusing me of trespassing, but I was able to hold on to my property.”
   Amid the harsh competitiveness, Nyambu developed friendships with other mine owners in the area, particularly with another woman mine owner, Elizabeth Gladwell and her daughter, Wangui Gladwell, who operate the Barakis mine close by. “She is older and was a good friend of my father. He requested that she give me the support that I needed at the mines,” Nyambu explains. She often talks to them and the women share information.
   Aside from the occasional visits to the site, running a mine can be a solitary business with many responsibilities. In addition to securing her land, Nyambu oversees production and sorting, controls the finances, hires employees and ensures the health and safety of the miners.

About Kambanga
   There are approximately eight mining locations on Kambanga, Nyambu’s property, which is in Taita Taveta county, approximately 37 miles from the largest town in the county, Voi, where she also has a sales office. The area outside the town of Voi is dotted with mines and workers digging to find tsavorite.
   To give an idea of the size of her property, one mining location is about 1 kilometer by 1.5 kilometers — slightly over one-half mile by just under one mile. She employs anywhere from five workers to ten workers per location. The day starts around 7:00 a.m. and continues to 3:00 p.m.
   In addition to tsavorite, miners dig for a variety of stones, including tanzanite, ruby, green tourmaline, yellow-green tourmaline and a dark shade of chrome tourmaline. Tourmaline production is on a weekly basis and tsavorite production is once or twice a month because, Nyambu says, “It is tricky and needs a lot of patience to find the pockets of material.”
   What makes tsavorite worth the extra effort and patience? According to Nyambu, “Tsavorite is more beautiful and valuable because of its great brilliance and robustness. Also, it does not undergo any treatment to enhance color or clarity.” Tsavorite has a high refractive index, 1.74, compared to other green stones like emerald, which has an index of 1.57. That translates to more brilliance, which means it has more display of spectral colors. It is also more rare than emerald, making it a much sought-after stone.
   After Nyambu sorts the gemstones by quality for sale, local gemstone brokers come by the mine or meet her at her office in Voi. She says local brokers “buy all the qualities and it is great because they are available to come by to purchase them at anytime.” Outside of Africa, Nyakiringa Horowitz of Horowitz Co-KCIG Co Ltd., a gem dealer based in the U.S., is her rough and cut distributor to the West.

Lessons Learned
   Nyambu is taking the lessons she learned from her father and combining them with new ways to create a sustainable and lasting legacy. She attended college at the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute to learn about ways to protect the environment and its wildlife. She has applied what she learned there to the mine operations. Her location near the Tsavo National Park is on the direct route for elephants that migrate during the dry season from January to March. During that time, she suspends most mining operations to stop workers from poaching and harassing the elephants. She doesn’t allow workers to lay traps in the mine and won’t hire workers who drink because they might wander off and be attacked by the wart hogs, hyenas, lions and other wildlife in the area. She plants trees around the mine to control large water run-off that erodes the soil and discourages miners from logging on her property.
   Nyambu’s dream to become a mine owner was fueled by her passion for stones like tsavorite that are precious, beautiful and brilliant. But it is her determination that won her the right to run the mine. Coupled with it, the lessons she learned from her father along with ways to protect the land have made her ready to face any challenges ahead. And the key to her success? “You must not have fear. I have learned that fear will keep you down and from your dreams.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2015. To subscribe click here.

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