As a child, Chris Mamalelala marveled at the low-flying planes that soared above his small village in eastern Botswana. The pilots, he was told, were diamond explorers, a title that piqued the curiosity of his 7-year-old imagination. “We didn’t understand what they were really talking about,” said Chris “We just understood what we saw at the time.”
It wasn’t until his third year at Botswana University, where he studied physics on a government scholarship given to high academic achievers, that Chris began to learn about the diamond industry. He pored through literature on the subject, hoping to learn as much as he could. He then understood that the planes of the explorers he had seen in his youth were part of a vast diamond industry that had shaped his country for the better.
Chris received his chance to work in the field when he heard Leo Schachter’s Botswana diamond manufacturing plant in the village of Molepolole was looking to train a recent graduate. On his first visit, he became enthralled with a model diamond he was shown. “I looked at the angles and came to realize that the shine comes from optics theory, which I had learned in physics. It was very fascinating to me.”
Landing a position as a trainee, Chris put his heart and soul into furthering his understanding of the industry. “I wanted to learn about every stage of diamond manufacturing,” he said.
He was sent to Johannesburg, South Africa and Surat, India to learn the ins and outs of diamond cutting from masters in the trade. He described the experience as eye opening, not only for the excitement of leaving his country. “I thought I knew a lot when I went, but when I got there, I realized there was still so much I had to understand.”
These precious minerals from the earth’s core have shaped Chris’s country for the better. After independence from Britain, Botswana was one of the poorest African nations, with an average annual per capita income of $80 per person. Today, it is one of the continent’s wealthiest, and boasts a large middle class. The reason? Diamonds. The Orapa mine, the country’s first, opened in 1967, with several more opening in the following decades. Botswana is now the world’s largest diamond producer by quality and value, and the country’s leadership has understood the importance of its natural resources, using the wealth in a way that directly benefits its citizens.
“Diamonds have shaped the economic landscape of our country,” says Chris. They are why we have free education in schools, and health services.”
Diamond manufacturers in Botswana also have a role to play in bettering the social and economic fortunes of the country. Leo Schachter, one of the leading diamond manufacturers in the world has a strong policy of giving back to the local community, which Chris says makes his work feel all the more worthwhile. In the case of Molepolele, which has historically struggled with high levels of unemployment, the company provides job opportunities, which has stopped many villagers from migrating to larger cities for work. 90% of the company’s staff hails from the surrounding area. “We really want to keep everything in the community as much as possible” said Chris.
One population in particular, has benefited from the company’s presence: women. “We want to empower women in the community,” says Chris, who said two thirds of those employed by Leo Schachter are female, with 10% holding supervisory positions. Many are single mothers and sole breadwinners of their families, making their employment with the company all the more meaningful.
Providing healthcare has been a priority for Leo Schachter –especially in light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that particularly threatened the country in the early 2000’s. According to Senior Principal Elliot Tannenbaum, “at one point over 60% of our employees were HIV carriers and we employed two full-time nurses and one full-time doctor on staff. Today we no longer have the need due to the progressive and comprehensive programs the diamond industry and government embrace, including providing free life-saving AIDS drugs to almost all citizens in need.”
When looking for ways to help the community, Chris and his team determine areas of particular need through discussions with village elders, the community’s leadership. Presently, they donate supplies to hospitals, and fund day-to-day operations in Bana ba Keletso, the community’s only school for orphans, many of whom are children of parents lost to HIV/AIDS. “These orphans needed to be given hope to show them they can live a better life even without their parents,” said Chris, who visits regularly. Since 2006, the company has been a major donor, paying for supplies, teachers’ salaries, and even arranging transportation for the children to and from home.
Looking back at himself as a child, pondering the curious presence of the exotic diamond explorers, Chris can hardly believe how far he has come, and the opportunities that have arisen for him through Leo Schachter. “This is a family that appreciates hard work,” said Chris of his employer. “The way they appreciate what I’m doing to develop the business here is amazing.”