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Africa's Hot Rocks Get Hotter: The Post-Pandemic Mineral Market

Tanzania and now Ethiopia are sources for some of the world's most coveted minerals. Whether we're talking about beloved gemstones like diamonds and emeralds, or industrial materials needed for manufacturing, the pre-pandemic market was sizzling for both. The post-pandemic mineral market is equally interesting.
workers walking through a mineral mine

Demand for gems and raw minerals grew significantly over the past two years. Even while supply chains choked and shipping vessels idled, demand for gems and minerals continued to climb. 

Looking forward, a study by the World Bank Group suggests the demand for minerals will grow as much as 500% in the next 30 years!

So today, we'll explore bizarre happenings in the sizzling global minerals market. We'll cover the beautiful and ugly sides of it here. If you're considering investing in the post-pandemic mineral market or gemstones, this will be an enlightening read.

Mineral Mining and Oil Extraction Are like Sisters

We've always considered mineral mining like a sister to fossil fuel extraction.

  • On-shore, both industries use similar technology and equipment to harvest the earth's hidden treasures.
  • History's most influential geologists can apply their research to both.  
  • As we focus more energy on cobalt, the earth's mineralogical offerings become even more vital to energy storage for transportation.

So, as we seek electric vehicles, one sister might be aging out into spinsterhood, while the other is coming of age. 

David and Goliath: The Distinct Mineral Markets of Ethiopia and Tanzania

While they're part of the same continent, Ethiopia and Tanzania have very different pre- and post-pandemic mineral market situations. You could think of them as David and Goliath!

Tanzania is one of the biggest giants behind the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa, and Botswana when it comes to Africa's mineral wealth.

Ethiopia is the little guy and a possible usurper.

Tanzania

In Tanzania, mining is the leading sector, and it has been for decades. Mineral exports increase every year there. However, it was a bit surprising that they continued to grow as usual regardless of the pandemic.

In 2021, leading Tanzanian exports include:

  • Gold, silver, nickel, and other precious metals
  • Cobalt, now a coveted resource for lithium battery production
  • Gemstones, like diamond and tanzanite
  • Graphite

The Tanzanian mining industry experienced roughly 15% growth in the first quarter of 2020, compared to 10% growth during the same quarter in 2019. 2021 totals aren't yet available, but we're not talking small potatoes. For instance, in the ten months from July 2019 to April 2020, mineral revenue totaled $202.7 million.

The 2017 Mining Upheaval

That kind of money doesn't go unnoticed by the government of a developing nation. In 2017, The Parliament of Tanzania, hoping to safeguard the nation's natural resources and employment opportunities for its people, passed some laws to achieve those goals.

We won't get too deep into the legislation here. But if you're thinking of prospecting in Tanzania, know they focus on two points:

  • Tanzanian citizens must be hired first for mining operations in the country.
  • Most precious gemstones cannot leave the country as rough material. They must be sorted, cut, and polished before exporting.

It's a clever way to boost skilled employment in the country. But master stonecutters cannot be trained overnight. It takes time to develop those skills. 

So the Tanzanian mineral sectors were facing a triple-whammy during the pandemic and still managed to grow! 

Now let's turn our gaze to Ethiopia’s post-pandemic mineral market. 

Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the mining sector is much smaller for now. Mining revenue represents only 1% of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). But the small sector saw record growth in the past few years, also in the face of a pandemic.

Much of that growth is attributed to a recent discovery of deposits of high-quality emeralds and some beautiful opals. Before that, mining efforts there were primarily artisanal. Now, gemologists call the nation a newly awoken gemstone giant.

And today, Ethiopia is luring new investors, new geologists, and a host of prospectors to their post-pandemic mineral market. The area has become quite attractive, considering the current prices for both finished gems and raw minerals. 

By the way, if you're planning to deal in Ethiopian gems, you'll need to deal in both.

The 2013 Mining Upheaval

Eight years ago, the Ethiopian Ministry tried to ban the exporting of rough opal but failed. The point, like in Tanzania, was to keep the employment and revenue rather than ship those jobs to India with the rough. 

Ultimately, it didn't work. The Ethiopian Ministry altered the ban in 2016. Today, opal exports must include both finished stones and uncut rough. Still, be warned: rumors claim Ethiopia might attempt to clamp down on exports again. But we don't think it will happen for a few years because gemstones are so hot right now.

Why Gemstones Are a Hot Investment Right Now

Mineral extraction company expanding operations to meet the demands of the post-pandemic mineral market

Gems are more than beautiful trinkets that might get you some hot holiday nookie. Some — like diamonds — boast important qualities of hardness, incredible durability, and electrical resistivity, making them essential for industrial applications and manufacturing.

Other gemstones (and their lab-created counterparts) become components in modern tech we use every day. While it's a less-sexy example, checkout scanners at grocery stores and gas stations often contain synthetic sapphires. Any time you buy fuel or food, there's a good chance you're involved in a sapphire-supported transaction.

Then there's tourmaline, a US gem that displays the Piezoelectric effect. Squeeze it, and it makes electromagnetic energy.

But there's another characteristic of gemstones that makes them desirable during a pandemic. Like gold and some precious metals, high-quality gems are portable wealth. They don't deteriorate. They're easy to hide (smuggle), and they're quickly convertible to cash. 

For all these reasons, people have been buying gemstones in record numbers, even during a pandemic. 

The Pandemic Pumped Gem and Jewelry Sales

Here in the US, jewelry sales jumped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Domestic consumers reported spending 30% more on jewelry in 2020.
  • That's significant when we remember that brick-and-mortar jewelry shops were closed.
  • Experts credit the phenomenon to limited travel, excess household budgets, and maybe an urge to spoil themselves during an uncertain time. 
  • But 72% of people surveyed about those purchases said they wanted to wear fabulous jewelry during Zoom meetings for work. 

Even though we were buying more bling, we didn't lead that race. China bought a lot more! Even though their 2020 jewelry purchases totaled 18% less than in 2019, they still out-bought us. And the Chinese appetite for gold is rebounding right now. So we can expect the price of gold and gems to increase come 2022. 

And let's not forget that over in Afghanistan — another primary mineral source — political upheaval means that supply might be very strained for a long time.

Now, all this news makes us eager to join the post-pandemic minerals markets in Ethiopia and Tanzania. But we must warn you. There's a dark side too. 

Environmental Challenges and Social Struggles in Africa

From environmental and social perspectives, mining is a dirty business. It's not like Disney's Seven Dwarfs are happily singing away their days in the mines to support today’s post-pandemic mineral market.

Earth Scarring in the Rainforests

We cannot find any current source describing the total acres of African jungle that are currently being torn up for the sake of minerals. Still, we imagine the number to be in the hundreds of millions of acres. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, though, and the BBC has some good ones here.

If your organization strives for a "green" reputation, mineral extraction is not appropriate. 

Terrorism and "Blood Diamonds"

If you watched Leonardo DiCaprio try to smuggle a massive pink diamond across borders in the movie Blood Diamond, you already know where we're going. Gem and mineral mining is dangerous for those on the ground, especially when nearby nations experience political upheaval. One can buy a lot of guns with a big bag of diamonds. 

But even if you don't care about politics, the final unsavory straw is child labor.

Child Labor 

NBC News said it best: "an army of children" toils in African mines.

The work is dirty and dangerous. And it doesn't pay much. But rather than seeking education in school, hundreds of thousands of African children work all day and sometimes all night, crawling through mines and picking through dirt for meager wages. 

Admittedly, here in the US, we have high standards when it comes to domestic child labor. We have strict laws regulating the hours a minor can work and the type of work they can perform, which vary from state to state. It's a "Not in My Backyard" issue. Our consumers don't care because we don't see that poverty with our eyes. (And we'll be blogging more about this soon.)

So we can see why some people feel the world's growing appetite for lithium batteries leads to child slavery. 

The Post-Pandemic Mineral Market in Closing

2020 and 2021 taught us some interesting lessons about the global economy, supply chains, and manufacturing needs. As 2021 comes to an end, the global economy is shifting in ways we thought were impossible or only dared to imagine while reading dystopian fiction (or watching it on Netflix.)

The world's appetite for minerals is growing, and the post-pandemic mineral market is growing with it. Domestic demand for cobalt is set to skyrocket. With upheavals in Afghanistan, this is the ideal time to get involved with extraction. But there's a dark side to consider first.

Related Reading & Resources:

Thecitizen.co.tz: What Next for Tanzania After Tanzanite Crash?

Lotusgemology.com: Downtown Gem Hunting in Tanzania

Sciencenewsforstudents.org: Chemistry: These Gems Make Their Own Way