“Women of the Diamond Industry” focuses on the issue of gender equality along the entire diamond and jewelry supply chain. The series provides a platform for women in the industry to tell their own stories and describe the particular challenges they have faced in their careers.
The fourth article in the series is authored by Jo Mathole & Khomotso Ramodipa, founders and co-owners of Kwame Diamonds, a diamond cutting and polishing company in Johannesburg, South Africa.
TWO WOMEN IN THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA:
TORCH BEARERS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
Jo Mathole (left) and Khomotso Ramodipa, who started out as diamond brokers in the South African diamond trade, during the years that the country’s business sector first opened up to Black entrepreneurs, and are today among a handful of women worldwide owning and operating a diamond manufacturing firm.
We are the owners of Kwame Diamonds, a South African diamond cutting and polishing company that was founded in 2008. We have nine employees – six women, ourselves included, and three men. We are currently part of a De Beers beneficiation project and are working towards becoming a Sightholder.
We were born and bred in Diepkloof, Soweto, a large township in the southwest of Johannesburg. Khomotso is a calm and reserved spirit, who loves nature, while Jo is more of an outgoing risk taker. Khomotso would rather go on a hike while Jo would opt to cycle.
The difference in our personalities has made us perfect partners, as we complement each other very well. We are sisters, friends and the best support system for each other. Growing up together in the tough township environment prepared us to withstand life’s challenges.
Kwame Diamonds became a reality after a great deal of trial and error, which included street trading and continental travels in African diamond producing countries, where we learned about the impact of the gemstone in those areas.
There are many lessons that gave character to the foundations of Kwame, which ultimately set us on a unique path to success in a challenging diamond industry – not only in South Africa but in Africa as a whole. Changing the narrative of blood diamonds into a story about the positive change that diamonds can create is what has driven our company to become what it is today.
Given our country’s history, conditions have been difficult for ordinary Black South Africans. With a democracy that is only 26 years young, plus the problems of high youth unemployment and national inequality, the odds were stacked high against two women with a vision to make their mark in the diamond industry.
Kwame Diamonds’ cutting and polishing plant in South Africa, staffed by six women and three men.
Starting out in the new South Africa
With the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994, our country opened up for business, from abroad and also in terms of improved opportunities being provided to Black-owned companies. We initially gravitated towards the coal, gold and platinum mining industries.
The diamond industry at the time did not seem a natural choice, because it appeared to be restricted to a chosen few. The perception was that it was a closed club – not for ordinary people like ourselves. Also, given the reputation of a problematic diamond trade across our continent, it was quite easy to be discouraged.
Interestingly, we first perceived an opportunity in diamonds during the great financial recession of 2008 and 2009. In the midst of all the uncertainty, retrenchments, businesses shutting down and significant exodus of Sightholders from South Africa to Botswana, we detected an opening to get in at the lowest level, and hopefully build ourselves up.
As first generation diamantaires, we did not inherit the business from family as most do, so we had no long-standing networks, no reputation, and no track record. We had to finance our business ourselves and truly earn our stripes in the industry.
We knew that we had to go all in to make it work. Khomotso, already a veteran optometrist, had to jump ship from her practice, and Jo left her stockbroking job to focus on the diamond business.
We started as brokers for overseas clients that would come to South Africa for tenders, earning just a 1 percent commission from the transactions. As you can imagine, this was no way to grow our business, but it gave us a front row seat in seeing what could be possible and allowed us to dream big.
Through this brokerage business, Jo was introduced to a client – Shrenuj from Mumbai, India – who wanted to set up a factory in Johannesburg. She took an instrumental role in establishing the facility, and went on to become the general manager of the subsidiary that the Indian company established in South Africa. In time, she assisted them in achieving Sightholder status, and so became the first woman in South Africa to manage a De Beers Sightholder company. Through this, she was fortunate enough to earn respect and trust within the local diamond industry.
Through that experience, we learned a great deal about manufacturing, and solidified our vision of what we wanted – which was to start our own factory.
Jo Mathole, who before devoting her career to the development of Kwame Diamonds, was the first woman in South Africa ever to manage a De Beers Sightholder company.
Breaking ground as independent diamond manufacturers
Several years years later, when the Shrenuj subsidiary was unfortunately closed and its owners went back to India, we were left with choice – swim or sink? We chose the first option.
We secured equipment, and set up a factory with two polishers. We started out by doing commission work, manufacturing for those who did not have the machinery. But we realized early on that to have a sustainable business and to develop it to the level we dreamed meant that that we needed to have access to our own rough diamonds.
Not long after that, we were selected to take part in the beneficiation program that had been set up by De Beers. To provide you with some context, South Africa currently is home to eight companies with De Beers Sightholder status, but all essentially are subsidiaries of foreign-headquartered firms. The concept of the program was to develop a Sightholder that would be 100 percent South African owned. It tackled four pillars that are crucial in having a sustainable diamond business – namely access to rough diamonds, access to finance, access to markets and good business acumen.
Breaking out into the international marketplace
International travel exposed us to the global diamond trade and what it has to offer. We had the opportunity to grow our network, which is now our most valued asset.
Our first trip to the Hong Kong Gem and Diamond show was both exciting and nerve-wracking. We were the only booth that was run and owned by women. People who were interested in purchasing stones would request to see the owner, presumably “a man,” and would be amazed to find out that we were the owners. It really opened our eyes to the reality that women are not generally considered contributors in this industry, but rather consumers.
We were warned about people who would swap your stone if you were not careful. Khomotso asked her first client to unroll the sleeves of his shirt and show his hands, all to make sure he was not up to tricks. Obviously, she had to declare first why she was putting him through the interrogation exercise, but today we are good friends, and he is a regular customer of ours.
We are also now proud members of the dynamic Young Diamantaires group, which is set to change the industry. Through it, we believe women will be given the platform to participate meaningfully, and their talents will be recognized accordingly.
Jo Mathole and Khomotso Ramodipa discuss how growing up in the tough living environment of Soweto readied them for their careers in the diamond industry.
A higher purpose
It has been a fulfilling journey, through which we have impacted lives and continue to aim to be a blessing to others. Ultimately, determination, perseverance and believing in our dream is what has carried us through these challenges. The diverse personalities between the two of us have proven to be a blessing, because we are able to balance each other out.
When we started our company, we had two employees other than ourselves. We have since grown almost four fold. We have a well-equipped factory and are officially a Forevermark accredited manufacturer. Our staff is our greatest asset and we regard them as family. Ultimately the business belongs to all of us. We encourage everyone to pull together towards the same goal of making Kwame a global brand.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, we had produced a promotional ad for broadcast on one of South Africa’s most popular television channels. It was supposed to run only for a month, four to six times a day, but luckily for us it continued airing for the entire six-month lockdown period. During that time, we were in the living rooms of households across the country. The increased exposure resulted in many people calling to find out more about our business and young people telling us how inspired they were to follow their dreams in industries that are mainly male-dominated, or where barriers of entry have always been a challenge. This experience reinspired us to uplift and empower women in this industry.
Having been raised by strong women ourselves, the mission for Kwame is to empower other women through diamond beneficiation. We passionately believe that if you feed a woman, you feed a nation.
The diamond industry exists because women across the globe drive it. We wear the jewellery, love the diamonds and create the demand, because we appreciate their value more. Yet it is still men who decide on the industry norms and trends.
It is indeed sad to only have a handful of women that own diamond companies. Women almost always are left to run the administrative side, while the men decide on what should be the next big thing. We would like to see more women in the diamond manufacturing space, across Africa and the world, providing role models that we can identify with and learn from. Today we see ourselves in that way, torch bearers for a new generation that is looking up to us.
Our vision for the future of Kwame Diamonds is to be a positive inspiration to all women who have the courage to venture into any industry or field that is traditionally viewed as male dominated.
As part of our growth, we recognise the growing demand for provenance and origin of natural diamonds. Our business is not only about the bottom line, but also about its purpose, and ours is to empower women to follow their passion.
We have invested in a marine vessel that will begin mining gems from the floor of ocean, off the western coast of South Africa. For us, the project will complete the entire value chain of mine to market, with our marine diamonds being the source for new new bespoke cuts such as the Ocean Flower. They will complement the history and heritage of the beautiful area in which they are mined.
We want to leave a legacy that goes beyond diamonds, using these precious stones to positively impact the lives of the less privileged in our country, and to serve as an inspiration for the rest our continent. It is critically important for the African industry to write a new chapter – a story of hope where “Diamonds Do Good.”
A Voice of America feature about Kwame Diamonds, and the groundbreaking achievements of its founders.