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Zimbabwean engineer runs Afghanistan's gemology plant

by Staff reporter
14 Aug 2021 at 17:31hrs | Views
A ZIMBABWEAN engineer, Clever Sithole (CS), last year made history when he was appointed head gemologist at a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded gemstone processing project in Afghanistan. A mining and mineral processing engineering graduate from the Midlands State University (MSU)'s satellite Manicaland State University, Sithole this week caught up with The NewsHawks Midlands correspondent Stephen Chadenga (SC) to share his experiences in the Middle Eastern country as well as perspectives on gemstones in that country and Zimbabwe.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

SC: Can you share a brief background about yourself, including your academic background?

CS: Born in 1980, I am the first born in a family of four boys. I started off primary education at Lochnivar Primary School (in Harare), then completed at Mhofu Primary School in Highfield township. I then went to Kwayedza High School, then completed at the Roman Catholic school at St Peter's Claver Secondary School in Mbare, Harare in 1998. Straight from Ordinary Level, I sought to establish myself in the professional world due to myself being the leader to my siblings.

In 1999, I enrolled for a programme in salesmanship at a private college with the then Salesmanship Institute of South Africa. Thereafter in 2004, I studied for a SFAAZ diploma in customs legislation and procedures at Speciss College in Harare. I became the inaugural best student and I sought to pursue a career in the freight forwarding, customs clearing and logistics business with a private company where I rose to become the branch manager in 2005.

I then joined the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ) as a logistics officer in 2007. Through a restructuring exercise in 2009, I proposed that the MMCZ should establish a monitoring and inspectorate unit, and I was appointed to be the MMCZ monitoring and inspectorate supervisor at the Marange diamond fields. I was heading the first team of monitors and other security departments responsible for ensuring accountability and security systems at the diamond mines.

During my time at the mines, I was acquainted with mining processes involving exploration, development, excavation, drilling, blasting, extraction, metallurgy and sorting/picking of rough diamonds until transportation to the sorting facilities in Harare. With the team I was heading, we were supposed to ensure zero loss and pilferage of the valuable ores and diamonds in line with the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme requirements.

In 2010, I was promoted to become one of the first diamond evaluators at MMCZ whereupon I was trained in South Africa at the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Training School, EGL College of Gemology, Diamond Educational College and Corliea Roberts Diamond College. Thereafter, I decided to pursue further training in gemology in India, Dubai and Belgium.

In addition, I obtained prestigious training from the Gemological Institute of America, Gemmological Association of Great Britain, World Gem Foundation of Spain, and the SSEF Swiss Gemological Institute whereupon I became one of the first few Advanced Scientific Gemologists in Africa. In 2016, an opportunity was presented to me by the Midlands State University at its newly established Manicaland State University of Applied Sciences to study mining and mineral processing engineering.

SC: From the Manicaland State University, how did you end up in Afghanistan?

CS: In February 2020, USAID and DAI (Development Alternatives Incorporated) sought to establish a Gemology

and Lapidary Centre in Kabul. They invited applicants on the internet, and I responded. From then on, interviews and background checks happened from February until my appointment in December 2020. I was appointed the head gemologist for a USAID project located in the capital city of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The project is a world-class facility for the value addition and beneficiation of gemstones produced in Afghanistan which include the famous emeralds from Panjshir Valley, rubies from Jegdalek, aquamarine, peridot, kunzite, Lapis lazuli, zultanite and various other gemstones. The skills that I acquired internationally primed me for the position. I managed to get training at all the best gem training institutes in the world, which is a rare feat for most gem professionals in the world. Most gemologists only acquire basic gemology education without going further to obtain scientific gemology studies. Also, my skills complement the entire gemstone value chain from mine to market.

SC: As head gemologist at the gemstone processing plant, what does your role involve?

CS: Managing the establishment of the Silk Road Heart Gemological

Laboratory and Lapidary Centre — a USAID project in Afghanistan –including training a team of two assistant gemologists (with little to no experience) to be able to evaluate and identify rough and polished material. Assessing gemstone characteristics, treatments, stimulants, as well as distinguish between natural and synthetic material using advanced technologies and detailed microscope analysis. Writing detailed reports and analyses on gemstone characteristics such as transparency, colour, inclusion-types, origin, and more. Establishing material origin through cross-referencing using an in-house database of Afghan gemstone characteristics and geomorphology. Utilising advanced spectroscope and spectrometer machinery, such as UV-VIS-NIR, Raman, FTIR, ED-XRF, and other modern technologies to issue accurate and thorough reports. Using basic gemological equipment, such as  microscopes (40-60x magnification), polariscopes, refractometers, spectroscopes and more. Instituting a blockchain of custody from mine to market as well ensuring responsible tracing of gemstones. Timely, I also sit in the Afghan government sub-committee under the Vice-President's office that is involved in advising the ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MoMP) as a technical committee member. Implementing a system of warranty of all gemstones produced in Afghanistan to ensure clean sourcing and transparent trade.

SC: We understand the project is aimed at value addition and beneficiation. Can you shed more light on this?

CS: The project aims to unlock value for gemstones produced in

Afghanistan, thereby harnessing more revenue for the fiscus. It is also a project that will help in training Afghan women, youths and Internally displaced persons to obtain vital local employment opportunities and self-help income projects. Value addition has many benefits in terms of harnessing maximum revenue for the host government if implemented professionally. The ultimate benefit will also ensure consolidation of an efficient supply chain of gemstones for markets in Dubai, China, Thailand, India and the United States.

The beneficiated gemstones can directly be showcased at markets like Tucson in the USA. We also implement cutting and polishing of Afghanistan gemstones using the latest machinery.

SC: By comparison, how is Zimbabwe faring on the value addition of gemstones? What needs to be done?

CS: The value of gemstones in Zimbabwe is non-existent. It is an untapped area which can help the country earn more revenue and create employment opportunities for communities in Hurungwe, Mudzi, Mberengwa, Marange and many other places where gemstones are produced.

After my experiences and training in India, I was appointed to the initial technical committee that sought to implement the Zimbabwe Gemology and Lapidary Centre in Mutare. The vision can still be pursued by implementing training programmes involved in gem extraction, processing and marketing. Also, we need to benchmark the gemstone industry with what is happening internationally. From many geology and gemology works of literature, Zimbabwe is listed as one of the best sources of gemstones such as emeralds, Iolite, diamonds, aquamarine, tourmaline, etc. We can utilise that opportunity and establish ourselves via aggressive marketing and publicity of the many gems we can produce.

SC: The training you received from world-class gemstone institutes across the world, what does it encompass and lessons for developing countries like Zimbabwe?

CS: As I mentioned earlier, I received training in Europe, South Africa, India, Dubai, and the Gemological Institute of America. The training included both basic gemology and advanced scientific gemology with involves the practical use of high-tech analytical gem instruments such as UV Vis NIR (ultraviolet visible) spectroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy, Raman Spectroscopy, EDXRF Analyzer, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), X-ray analysis of pearls, UV-fluorescence of diamonds (DiamondView™), Laser Ablation-ICP-Time Of Flight Mass Spectrometry (GemTOF) and many others. The training is expensive and involves a lot of research and commitment. For countries such as Zimbabwe, we need to invest in such technologies and establish our own gem research training centre which will help market our unique gemstones produced in our country.

SC: Can you share with us your envisaged Gemology degree at the Midlands State University?

CS: This is a unique programme that aims to address the gap between the traditional geology, metallurgy and mining curricula taught at most universities in Zimbabwe and in the world. Most graduates of geology or mining usually obtain little in-depth knowledge about gemstones.

Hence the shallow knowledge about the science of gems. Most training institutes focused on gemology are abroad and the cost is beyond the reach of many. For a six-month programme of training for both practical and theory, one has to part with up to US$24 000 tuition for an in-class training in the USA. However, at MSU we will make it affordable.

Among other outcomes, the graduates will be able to:

--  understand the geological environment and processes of gemstone formation,

--  understand physical, chemical, optical and other properties of gemstones,

--  use gemological equipment correctly to identify gemstones,

--  demonstrate a knowledge base about natural gemstones, synthetic gemstones and imitation gemstones,

--  understand the valuation of raw and cut diamonds and pearls, and coloured stones,

--  understand how gemstones are found, mined, processed, fashioned, and marketed.

SC: When people hear of Afghanistan, the first thing that comes to mind is a country ravaged by war for years. How is the Middle Eastern country picking up the pieces using precious minerals such as gemstones to build its economy?

CS: Afghanistan has been mining and trading gemstones for thousands of years. Its precious and semi-precious stones can be found in world-renowned gem and jewelry collections and have adorned some of the world's most iconic figures. Afghanistan is known for its emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and lapis lazuli.  The country is also home to a plethora of other gemstones, including afghanite, aquamarine, garnet and tourmaline.

Currently, most precious gemstones leave Afghanistan as rough, uncertified gems and enter gem markets in Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates and other countries. Because little to no value addition is being performed in Afghanistan, most of the gemstones' value is being captured by other countries. Afghanistan has not had the means to provide certification and finishing services in-country, so it has missed out on capitalising on the gemstones' true world-market value. However, some pioneering Afghans are about to change that.

Afghan gem businessmen and their American partner have collaborated with the USAID's INVEST initiative, which mobilises private capital for better development results, to open the country's first gemstone certification lab and lapidary. Silk Road Heart Gemological Laboratory and Lapidary will provide identification, gemological, and origin reports as well as rough gemstone sorting and cutting and polishing services to Afghan miners and traders. In addition, Silk Road will offer training in cutting and polishing. Silk Road is expected to have strong economic as well as social and developmental impacts.

Source - thenewshawks