De Beers last month launched a pilot program called GemFair, which includes an app that aims to ensure the ethical sourcing of diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Still haunted by the stigma of “blood diamonds” coming out of war-torn African nations, in which the sale of diamonds was used to fund civil wars and enrich warlords, or prop up autocratic regimes, De Beers is putting into the hands of small-scale, licensed miners in Sierra Leone tablets preloaded with the app. The software is designed to track a diamond’s journey at all stages, from source to consumer. It will show the GPS location of the gem at extraction, and proceed to make a record of the production process, with the assistance of QR-coded “bag and tag” equipment.

Artisanal and small-scale mining accounts for only 20 percent of global diamond production. However, according to the Canada-based nongovernmental organization Diamond Development Initiative, which has partnered with De Beers for the GemFair project, “it is of great economic and social significance. It has been estimated that throughout the world, small-scale mining involves approximately 13 million people directly, and affects the livelihoods of a further 80 million to 100 million people.”

In fact, small-scale mining is vital to the Sierra Leone economy. The DDI calls the country’s mineral economy a “one-crop” economy, the “crop” being diamonds. “Although there are other minerals mined in Sierra Leone, the diamond sector provides more jobs than any other after subsistence agriculture and is the largest contributor to GDP and export earnings.”

In 2016 the GDP of Sierra Leone was $3.67 billion. With a population of 7.4 million, that comes out to a gross domestic product per capita of $496.05. Diamond exports that year brought in $108 million.

“The DDI is focused on ensuring artisanal and small-scale miners have access to the opportunities, information and tools that help create self-sustaining communities and formally recognize the sector’s contribution to economic development,” said Dorothee Gizenga, executive director of the DDI, in a statement.

Miners who wish to participate in the GemFair pilot must be certified by the DDI as meeting their standards, as well as additional standards specific to the GemFair business model. Once ethically certified, De Beers “will provide qualified miners with a technology solution that includes an app and a dedicated tablet, supported by a diamond ‘toolkit’ that will enable the digital tracking of artisanal and small-scale mined diamonds throughout the supply chain.”

The diamond toolkit includes hardware that can work in tough rural conditions, relying on solar chargers if need be.

In addition, the mine sites would have to meet “demonstrable ethical standards.” The aim is to purchase rough diamonds from approved locations while helping to improve working conditions and livelihoods for those working in the sector.

De Beers does not own any mines in Sierra Leone. And while miners are under no obligation to sell their stones to GemFair, De Beers will make offers for any diamonds presented for sale, regardless of quality. Any approved purchases would be sold via De Beers’ Auction Sales channel.

De Beers Group chief executive officer Bruce Cleaver said in a statement: “The ASM sector represents a critical income source for many poverty-affected communities. However, due to parts of the sector being largely informal and unregulated, it lacks access to established international markets and the ability to derive fair value for participants. By providing a secure route to market, offering fair prices and helping to raise standards, we hope to play a role in enhancing the prospects for those working in the sector, while also potentially opening up a new source of supply for De Beers over the longer term.”

There is no timeframe for the completion of the project, but the aim is to make a first purchase later this year.

De Beers has indicated that should the pilot project be successful, the technology used in GemFair will be integrated with the diamond industry blockchain platform it is developing. This will allow the ASM sector to participate in the blockchain, which will provide “an additional layer of assurance for ASM production.”