Page last updated at 04:29 GMT, Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Botswana gems to sparkle at home

Peter Biles
BBC News, Gaborone

Diamonds account for 80% of Botswana's foreign earnings

A new diamond-processing plant, The Diamond Trading Company, has opened in Botswana, creating about 3,000 jobs.

Until now, diamonds from Botswana have been sent abroad to be polished, marketed and sold.

The $83m plant, jointly owned by the government and diamond giant De Beers, will become a processing centre for diamonds from De Beers mines worldwide.

Botswana is the world's largest producer of diamonds and one of Africa's most stable countries.

The presence of the new advanced diamond sorting facility in the capital, Gaborone, is expected to create further jobs in the finance, security and telecommunications sectors.

Vast pit

Diamonds are a finite resource, but they still make up 80% of Botswana's foreign earnings.

Balisi Bonyongo, general manager of Jwaneng mine
We have seen a lot of opportunities being created... on the back of the discovery of this great operation
Balisi Bonyongo
General manager, Jwaneng mine

For quarter of a century, diamonds have been dug from Jwaneng Mine - the richest diamond mine in the world.

Jwaneng means "the place of small stones".

Its vast open pit yields the bedrock of Botswana's economy, and looks to do so for decades to come, guaranteeing continued growth.

The mine's general manager, Balisi Bonyongo, argues that development in Botswana "really took off" when Jwaneng Mine was discovered, and when it started operating in 1982.

"We have seen wealth creation in this country," he said.

"We have seen a lot of opportunities being created, for employment, for infrastructure, hospitals, health services - on the back of the discovery of this great operation - Jwaneng Mine."

Previously, mined diamonds were exported straight to London to be processed.

But with the rough gems now being sorted at the Diamond Trading Company, the production process will be centred in Botswana.

That will eventually benefit thousands of local workers.

Long-term investment

De Beers, which has been operating in Botswana for more half a century, says it makes economic sense to move the technology and skills to the country.

Worker cutting and polishing diamonds
The Diamond Trading Company will create 3,000 jobs

Botswana's reputation as a stable country is attractive to investors, argue the firm's management.

"Mining is a long term investment," said Sheila Khama, Chief Executive Officer of De Beers Botswana.

"And one of the pre-requisites to investing in mining, is political and economic stability... of the country in which the investor puts their money.

"Botswana's successful beneficiation ensures Botswana's economic stability."

Ms Khama accepts that concerns remain about the finite nature of the diamond industry.

"We know diamonds are a finite resource and over 50 years, we spent $93m in Botswana searching for diamonds," she said.

"We need to find other deposits."

Stiff competition

Delphinah Kehathilwe, a local diamond sorter, knew nothing about diamonds before she underwent six months of training.

Jwaneng mine
Jwaneng's vast open pit has yielded diamonds for 25 years

"They say diamonds are a lady's friend, but before I didn't see much in a diamond. But touching them on a daily basis, I began to like them," she said.

Cutting and polishing facilities are also being moved to Africa, with 16 different manufacturers agreeing to start operations in the country.

While this diversification will face stiff competition from the traditional centres in China and India, the developments are important ones for Botswana.

The transfer of skills from abroad should put the country on the map as never before, and change the face of its diamond industry.

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