Small ventures, big hopes

Though they crave technology and investment, Tanzania's artisanal and small-scale miners are fuelled by determination and the hope to strike it big

26 September 2017
View of the quarry

A small-scale mine in Tanzania

Hard work and an against-all-odds entrepreneurial spirit have kept afloat one East African country's artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector. Despite little support, the sector accounts for the jobs of more than a million Tanzanians. But with more finance, equipment and know-how, these enterprises could create even more jobs, as well as generating local business opportunities in some of the world's poorest communities. 

Mining in Tanzania is a major and rapidly growing part of the economy, not least as a source of employment. Approximately one-and-a-half million people are directly involved in ASM across the country (PDF), compared to about 12,000 who are employed by large-scale mining companies. Artisanal miners dominate most of the country's coloured gemstone production. Many of them are women, who make up 27 per cent of the overall ASM workforce and who often face the greatest hardships.

A labourer fills a bucket with limestone.

A labourer fills a bucket with limestone. Labourers in quarries often earn about 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$4.50) per day.

Despite several progressive policy initiatives that aspire to make ASM a local growth engine, the sector is still struggling to realise its full potential to contribute to sustainable development. In particular, limited access to technology and technical skills and, crucially, access to finance and markets, blight the sector. 

Through its global dialogue series on ASM, IIED is working to promote a sustainable and productive ASM sector in countries where ASM is very active. Tanzania is one of those countries. Building wider support for the sector is essential to attract investment and fairer markets, and to replicate good practices elsewhere.

While there is general public acceptance of ASM in Tanzania, there is little awareness of the benefits it can bring to communities, particularly through the creation of jobs for unskilled young men and women. There is also a lack of understanding of how ASM could support the government’s enterprise and industrialisation agenda, a key part of its Development Vision 2025 (PDF).

Against this backdrop, IIED embarked on a 1,000-kilometre journey to Northern Tanzania to meet with some of the entrepreneurs who, armed with the simplest of tools, have built vibrant ASM ventures that create jobs and stronger local economies.

“If you work together, you do better”

Two woman smile and pose for a photo in front of a quarry

Business partners Mwanahamisi Mzalendo and Mwanamkasi Rasi are optimistic about the future of their quarry

Tanzania's Tanga region is known throughout the world for its vast deposits of gemstones, but the region is also rich in limestone and other minerals used in the construction of buildings, roads and other infrastructure. 

Many women are involved in the artisanal and small-scale mining and quarrying of these commodities. Many hold government licences, officially known as primary mining licences (PMLs), which allow them to set up small quarries, either as individuals or as groups.

Mwanahamisi Mzalendo holds one of these licences to quarry limestone in the Kiomoni district, situated five kilometres from Tanga town, the regional capital. 

"We work hard and this work is part of our lives," says Mwanahamisi, who has three children and a six-year-old grandchild. "We get the money for our children's school fees. We get the food from here. Even the houses that we built come from this business." 

Artisanal licensees such as Mwanahamisi blast solid rock into rubble, which they crush – often by hand – into smaller pieces. The rocks are then grouped into piles, according to size, and transported out of the quarry in small crates carried by female and male labourers. Truckloads of crushed rock are sold to members of the local community who use them as part of the mix of materials needed to build homes, sun shelters and other small buildings. Artisanal quarry workers do most of their work manually, often using hammers or other rocks as their only tools.

Mwanahamisi started quarrying some 20 years ago. But she struggled to turn a profit and grow her business. In 2010, she and two other women, Mwanamkasi Rasi and Juliana Mananga, decided to pool their resources to create a de facto single quarry. 

"If you work together, you do better," says Mwanahamisi, who got the idea of teaming up with other women at a training workshop on entrepreneurial skills run by the government and the International Labour Organization. "Those of us who were there learned how to save and work the quarry so it makes more money. We trusted each other and sat down after to share information and decided to work together."

Each partner remains the licence-holder for their assigned plot, but they share tasks related to the administration and day-to-day running of the integrated quarry. This includes the supervision of about 10 labourers, keeping records of what is paid and sold each day, dealing with the local authorities, and taking care of the site's environmental footprint – making sure that the pits are refilled after exploitation, for example.

The women are positive about their association, as working alone was not giving them enough room to save. "It was difficult to grow and hire more labourers. We were very vulnerable. We spent what we earned every day," says Mwanahamisi.

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The quarry business partners share administrative tasks, which include saving for running costs, making sure that the site is properly staffed each day, and overseeing sales

They have now established a cooperative-style system for saving part of their daily income to cover the business' running costs. Each day, they set aside 5,000 Tanzanian shillings (roughly US$2.25) to help cover their licence fee (about $500 per year), taxes and a contingency pot to be used in case of unforeseen problems or accidents.  

While they stress that their businesses are doing better now, they are quick to point to continuing difficulties.

"We want to grow and get equipment so we have access to other markets," says Mwanahamisi, adding that rock crushing machines would allow the quarry to process and sell construction materials to larger public projects, such as schools, as well as shops and other commercial buildings. But they lack the finance to purchase the equipment needed. 

Capital investment for artisanal quarries and small-scale producers of construction materials has been limited, particularly when compared to opportunities available to ASM producers of gold or gemstones. However this is slowly changing, at least in Africa, thanks to new financing initiatives, such as the one recently announced by the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme and the African Guarantee Fund that will see $12 million in loans available to ASM quarry operators and others involved in this sector. 

"I would like my children and grandchildren to do this work, but not the way I'm doing it," adds Mwanahamisi. "Crashing the rock with hands and hammers is very hard. If they get the good technology and advanced machines, I would love to see my children and grandchildren do this in the future because this is a good business. If we get the good machines and good technologies we can be big and get to the national level and even international, if possible."

Mwanahamisi Mzalendo stands in front of her house

Mwanahamisi Mzalendo stands in front of her house which was built from limestone from her quarry

“There's better business here because of the mines”

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Mariam Hassan takes a break at her small restaurant for quarry workers. She carries her youngest child with her on the hour-long walk from home

About 8km north of Tanga city, off the Tanga to Mombasa road, a sign announces the village of Amboni, famous for hosting the largest limestone caves in East Africa. A few hundred metres away, on the side of a dirt road leading to six limestone quarries, a simple shack shelters a makeshift restaurant, busy amid the sound of machines crushing rock.

Mariam Hassan runs this small restaurant. On a simple wooden plank, she serves breakfast and lunch each day to between 10 to 15 female and male labourers from the nearby quarries. 

"Business is not paying much but I can support myself," says Mariam while preparing chapattis for the breakfast crowd. "But I would like to grow."

This is Mariam's first job. She used to be a homemaker but after separating from her husband a year ago she needed to find work to support herself and her three children. The youngest, a two-year-old toddler, travels on her back during the one-hour walk from her home in a neighbouring village.

Mariam is one of the many micro entrepreneurs who earn a living by providing services to quarry workers. Her breakfast offering consists of two or three warm chapattis and a cup of tea costing about 300 Tanzanian shillings (about $0.12). At lunch, she serves Ugali – cornmeal cooked in boiling water – and rice for 1,000 shillings ($0.45). After costs, Mariam earns a daily profit amounting to about 15,000 shillings (US$6.70).

Mariam Hassan making chapattis

Mariam Hassan cooks the morning chapattis

"I could do better. I could sell milk and cold drinks," says Mariam. But she lacks the capital to buy food and supplies in greater quantities and make a bigger profit. As an informal business owner, Mrs Hassan is not able to get a loan from banks or cooperatives, and there are virtually no alternatives to obtain finance at affordable rates.


Approximately 300,000 shillings (US$134) could kick-start a growth spurt for her business. "I would use it to buy flour, rice, oil, tea bags. If I buy in bulk, I can save. At the moment, I live hand to mouth," she said. 

While there are other jobs for women, Mariam says that they are not as profitable as her small restaurant. "Working in a shop or staying in the farm, you don't earn much money, so I came to the mine. There's better business here because of the mines."

Breakfast crowd

Quarry labourers gather at Mariam Hassan's tiny restaurant for a breakfast of chapattis and tea

“If you have all the things you need to do the work, then doing it is OK.”

Mary Nicolas inside the mine

Mary Nicolas Dismas inside the mine where she digs for green garnets

Our journey continues 100 kilometres to the northwest of Tanga town, where the Kalalani area, exceptionally rich in gem deposits, is found. The landscape is flat, broken only by thick bushes and grasslands, with the rusty-red soil foretelling the presence of minerals. After reaching Kalalani village, a rough dirt road opens the way to several kilometres of gemstone mines.

One of these is run by Mary Nicolas Dismas. Mary Nicolas is an artisanal producer of green garnets. These gems have seen a price hike in recent years, as they are increasingly used as alternatives to emeralds. A widow with three grown daughters, Mary Nicolas remains the head of a household that includes her elderly mother, her new partner and two brothers who are unable to work. Her daughters also rely on her support from time to time.   

Mary Nicolas' site is small and simple. The lack of investment and equipment are obvious. At the moment she does not have the money to employ helpers, so she is working the site alone. But none of this seems to dampen her spirits.

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During training Mary Nicolas learned she could make more money by first sorting stones, and then selling them in smaller, more specific batches

"If you have all the things you need to do the work, then doing it is OK," says Mary Nicolas. "There is more opportunity here than in farming. You work in the sun (in farming) and there is not much income, so I keep working here because in the future I will get a big stone and make much more money."

While the site produces little, Mary Nicolas says that she is able to make enough money to live and sustain her family. But ongoing finance is one of her major problems. 

"Sometimes I don't have enough money for the running costs so I have to go and do other work, like farm work, to raise money for the site and to support my family," she says. When Mary Nicolas is able to get the funds she uses the money to hire more workers and produce more. But more workers also entail other expenses, such as more explosives and tools, as well as meals.

Mary Nicolas has been taking part in training workshops run by Pact and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Before the training, Mary Nicolas and other women miners were selling their stones in bulk by the kilo to local traders. They learned that they could make more money if they first sorted the stones by quality and value, assessing their colour, shade and shape, and then sell them in sub-lots. 

She says that if she finds a stone that weighs roughly three grams, has no bubbles and is transparent and clean, she can get anywhere between 1.5 to 3 million Tanzanian shillings (US$670 to $1,340). But she is quick to add that she has not found a stone like that yet. 

"My brother asks: 'Why do you keep wasting your time over there when you don’t get enough, why don't you find something else to do'," says Mary Nicolas. "But I don't want to stop because I have hope in this area."

Her hope, she says, is to find a big stone that will change her life once and for all.

Green garnet

So far Mary Nicolas has not found the big gemstone that could change her life

“We are working hard and will produce more. Lives are going to change”

Rehema Peter Mushi mines red garnets and sapphires. She recently won a grant to purchase equipment

Rehema Peter Mushi mines red garnets and sapphires. She recently won a grant to purchase equipment

Rehema Peter Mushi has been a gemstone miner in the Kalalani region since 1997. Although she has mined red garnets, sapphires and rubies for two decades, her working life started in hotel management in her native Kilimanjaro. Her future changed one afternoon during a work break in Tanga, when she met an American gemstone miner who was to become her husband and business partner. 

"I was very curious about gemstones," recalls Rehema Peter. "I learned how to find them in the mine, how to sort them and clean them. As I got more involved I said that I wanted to be a shareholder of the company."

For several years, their Down to Earth Mining Company did well. Rehema Peter remembers with pride how many people they used to employ: "We had about 30 labourers, some were employees, others were there for the day, and others got a percentage of what they found."

But their company closed down due to their divorce and other complications. 

"It's difficult to [hire many labourers] now because I don't have any finance. I am not able to employ as many people as before," she says.

Labourers gather at the 'camp area' at Rehema Peter's site

Labourers gather at the 'camp area' at Rehema Peter's site

She is now pinning her hopes on getting a new mining licence that will let her bring on board an overseas investor. The law does not allow this option to those holding a primary mining licence.  

"I am doing the registration of the company and after that I will go to the main mining office in Dar for the licence. But I am looking for someone that can pay my 3,000 dollars for the application fee. I am looking for an investor and there are people who are interested," she says. 

Rehema Peter also holds a PML to mine red garnets and sapphires in the Kipingoni area of Kalalani. She recently won a US$100,000 grant for this concession from the government, under a programme funded by the World Bank. The money, which can only be used for the purchase of equipment, will enable her to get an excavator to remove sand and debris after blasting, and a compressor for powering the jackhammers that drill the rock. 

"The grant will change the business a lot. I've been waiting for this for a long time. We are working hard and will produce more. Lives are going to change," says Mrs Peter. "I will be hiring more people. I want to have 50 people in my site."

While the equipment will provide a major boost to the business, obtaining finance for the day-to-day running of the site remains problematic, as there are many costs that have to be covered up front, such as licences, wages and food. 

Gemstone sites like Mrs Peter's generally employ both male and female labourers. After blasting, it takes about one day for 15 of her male labourers to remove roughly 300 kilograms of debris from the pit. It takes another day to sieve the rubble to separate the ores that bear gems from those that do not. Finally, it takes three days for five female labourers to sort the gems according to their fluorescence and shine. With an excavator, Mrs Peter says, they will be able to blast more often as they will be able to remove the debris faster.

"A lot of women come asking for work, particularly for sorting stones. Many of them are single and they need to work. They live with hope that one day they will get something from me. For now they receive something 'small-small' so they are able to live with their children and put daily bread."

Rehema Peter says that she is thinking big – and she knows she needs to grow her skills too.

"I want to learn about management, supervising workers, and marketing," she says. "You cannot do everything by yourself. You need to find people who can help. But I feel good about the process."

For her mining company to thrive, she will need to get professional advice from accountants and engineers. "But you still have to manage everyone and supervise that everything is done well," she quickly adds. 

"We live with the hope... If you get a big piece of sapphire you can get rich, so we live with hope. If I get this [company] right, it will help me and my family, but it will also help others and their families. It's not just for me; it's for everyone," concludes Rehema Peter.

Close up of woman sorting stones

A woman miner holds a rough red garnet found in Mrs Peter's site

“They come to find work. We teach them how to do mining”

Amati Ngerera

Amati Ngerera and his partners have got a private investor for their green garnet mine

A further 20 kilometres on the same unpaved Kalalani road, Amati Ngerera and his partners are in the middle of a busy working day at their green garnet site. The sounds of machinery and the bustling of workers drilling and carrying crates stands in sharp contrast with the relative quiet of other sites.

Three months ago, they secured ongoing finance for their venture from a private investor. Within a few weeks, the site's productivity has increased considerably. Amati says they are set to produce about 35 kilograms of green garnet per month.

"Our sponsor got an excavator. You have to pay about 30 million ($13,410) to get an excavator – without the sponsor I wouldn't have been able to do it," says Mr Ngerera.

Group shot of license holders and their investor

The licence holders, Amati Ngerera (left) and Salim Hassan (middle) and their investor, Sadat Ahmed Abdallah (right), know and trust one other

Their investor, Sadat Ahmed Abdullah, financed the purchase of the excavator and lights for night work. He also teaches women labourers, most of whom come from the local Masaai community, to sort the gemstones. As a Tanzanian national, he is able to provide sponsorship to PML holders. He says that one of the reasons for his involvement in this venture is that demand for green garnet is currently very high.

"There's a shortage of high quality green garnet in the market and this deposit produces very high grade gemstones," says Sadat Ahmed, adding that he chose to work with Amati and his partners because of his trust in them.

The feeling seems to be mutual. 

"I have known him for 12 years," says Amati. "He's a good man. Sometimes he sleeps in his car and doesn't make it home. He works hard."

The site employs 12 miners who work in three shifts, day and night, and an additional eight women work sorting the stones.

The site has three working pits, the deepest running 28 metres underground. The mineworkers are mostly young men, aged between 20 and 30, from nearby villages.

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The site's investor trained this group of women on how to sort green garnets

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A labourer climbs down into the mine. Most labourers are young men from the local villages

"When they arrive, most know nothing about mining and learn at the site," says Amati. "They come to find work. We teach them how to do mining. Some tasks are easy to learn like taking rocks, but for those who are using the jackhammer, they take three months to learn."

He adds that if the mineworkers were not employed at his site, they would be working in farms or unemployed. 

Amati, a father of two, also chairs Tanga's Regional Miners Association, known as TAREMA, which represents Tanga's miners at the national level. 

"If small-scale miners are empowered they can contribute to the economic development of the country," he says. He notes that there are 3,000 small-scale miners in Tanga. "They pay taxes and the country economy grows. They create jobs and opportunities for more people."

Our journey ends 340 kilometres later, in Dar es Salaam. This city, and Arusha in the north, are the country's centres for gem trading. Gemstone cutters, polishers and jewellers concentrate in these cities too.

Masaai women sorting stones

The mine employs women from the local Masaai community to sort the green gems

“They want to know where you get the stones and I can tell them they come from women I trust”

Shamsa Diwani

Shamsa Diwani fell in love with gemstones when she was a young woman

Shamsa Diwani was content working as a secretary for Air Tanzania, until she fell in love with gems. Though she continued in her job for many years, travelling to many parts of the world, she registered a gemstone mining company in the 1970s. 

"It was not easy to deal with gemstones at that time. It was risky. You need to know how to buy and how to sell," recalls Shamsa who, many years later, tried again. "I took early retirement in 2002 because I had to assist my daughter who had a baby and I wasn't allowed to take leave without pay, so I said let me go and start my own business." 

Shamsa enrolled in the Institute of Southern and East African Mineral Centre (SEAMIC, now called the African Minerals and Geoscience Centre), and pursued a basic gemology course. This new knowledge mixed with her experience gave her the confidence to apply for a licence and head to a site in the Tanga region. But starting as a hands-on miner at age 51 proved to be too much.

"It was hard. Too hard. You have to be at the site and supervise people and I decided I couldn't do it. I was thinking maybe I would find someone to manage it for me and tried for three years, until I decided I couldn't do it," she says.

Unwilling to give up on her love of gems, she decided to buy and trade them instead.

"There was still potential. I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so I registered an association," she says, referring to her new venture, a company that operates as an association. Shamsa has since concentrated on what she calls 'value addition,' or the processing of rough gems into the finished product. This includes polishing, cutting, and making jewellery or other ornaments.

"You get more money if you add value because you're not just selling rough stones but something that has greater value," she says. "Although you use more money, you also get more money – but selling rough you are losing."

Shamsa buys rough stones from small-scale miners, including Mrs Dismas from Kalalani.

"If you take rough stones, the good ones and cut and polish, even these semi-precious stones, like amethysts, you get good money. You can get even 80 per cent profit."

1:20 "You get more money of you add value", an interview with Shamsa Diwani

Shamsa says that she sees her work as a partnership with miners, especially women miners. "I said, let me concentrate on value addition and other people can do the mining. After all, we are working together because all the customers they want to know where do you get these stones, how are they mined, if they are safe, so my interest was selling, meeting people." 

As a past secretary general of the Tanzania Women Miners Association, or TAWOMA, and a former miner, Shamsa knows the struggles of women in artisanal mining. She made it a point for her new business – aptly called Mineral Value Addition Company – to source from women gemstone miners, many of whom are TAWOMA members. 

"Women are always suffering in mining. It's really hard. But they have determination and a passion. But it's very hard unless we have investors. Maybe you work together – otherwise, it is not easy." 

The market seems to be interested in her approach. She says that "jewellers want to know where stones come from and I can tell them that they come from women I trust".

Her Mineral Value Addition Company supports miners, cutters, polishers and artisans across the gemstones' trajectory from mine to buyer. There are currently 52 members, all of whom are women, who pay registration fees and pool resources – however small – every month to make one business deal together.

"If we can share even 10,000 (shillings) every month, we can buy stones, cut and polish and sell, and get profit of up to 80 per cent. If we put our money together, we can buy together and sell."

Shamsa says that when buying stones, she checks how and where they are mined. She currently sources from five selected suppliers in Tanga, Morogoro and Mererani.

"My family says you are always tired and running around, why don't you do something else. I say no because there is money in this business," says Shamsa. "I won't do this for many more years but I want other people to benefit from this sector because this sector I feel is good."


Artisanal and small-scale mining is by far one of the most physically demanding and risky types of work there is. To make matters worse, those with little access to finance cannot purchase much needed equipment to increase their productivity. Many lack the know-how to price their gemstones and lose money to dishonest buyers. And others put everything they own on the line, only to end up empty-handed.

Yet our journey across the north of Tanzania put us in contact with optimism and determination – especially among women, who often face the greatest hardships. Forthcoming IIED research shows that many women are unable to obtain licences due to their limited knowledge of the process. The majority of women mine in abandoned mineral waste areas, so their chances of striking it big are tiny.

These issues and many others, like health and safety, environment, land access, and participation in policy debates and decision-making, will be considered in IIED's ASM dialogue in Tanzania in November. The four-day event will aim to identify collaborative solutions that allow ASM entrepreneurs to prosper and bring more opportunities to poor communities.

While their businesses struggle to grow, these Tanga-based entrepreneurs manage to make a living, support themselves and their families, and many even provide employment, in the better cases, to about 20-25 workers. If they have been able accomplish this much with so little support, it is thrilling to imagine what they could do with adequate and affordable finance, better skills and technology, and access to fairer markets. And if the one million Tanzanians involved in ASM could benefit from all this, they could be among the greatest winners.