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‘Constructing’ Ethical Mineral Supply Chains in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of Malawian Fair Trade Rubies


  • Gavin Hilson

  • The author would like to thank Mr Paul Kamlongera for his assistance with fieldwork, and the editors and three anonymous reviewers for their commentary on an earlier draft. Financial support for this research was provided by the British Academy under the project, ‘Fair Trade: Challenges and Prospects for Small-Scale Miners’ (SG101448). Needless to say, any errors this paper may contain are the sole responsibility of the author.


Over the past decade, sales of Fair Trade agro-products have risen sharply, fuelled by innovative marketing campaigns that use imagery to ‘connect’ Western consumers to impoverished farmers in developing countries. The success of Fair Trade has led to speculation over whether its portfolio could be broadened to include non-agricultural products, a debate which, in recent years, has focused heavily on the precious minerals and stones being extracted by impoverished artisans. A lack of policy oversight, however, has resulted in Fair Trade being interpreted very differently in this context. In the absence of certified, internationally-recognized guidelines for the implementation of Fair Trade mineral schemes, designers have drawn inspiration from a global mining development agenda that has become preoccupied with anti-corruption and traceability. This article draws on the case of Malawi's NyalaTM ruby, described as a ‘Fair Trade Gem’ by its supplier, to illustrate how ethical mineral programmes are potentially being misbranded as Fair Trade. Although the scheme delivering NyalaTM ruby to markets is supplying a traceable commodity, in the process helping to alleviate consumers’ concerns about conflict minerals, it seems to be providing very little benefit to poor producers — the primary objective of Fair Trade.

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