Seth Onyango, bird story agency
Mary Otieno is expecting a gentle evening draft to bring some relief from the heat that lingers in the air as dusk settles over the sprawling city of Dubai. The chairperson of Women in Mining Operations (Wemo) may live in Africa but contrary to many people’s expectations, that does nothing to prepare one for the heat of the Middle East.
Otieno has come to Dubai to ensure that her organisation can influence the role of women, and mining, in what she hopes will be a greener, more equitable future for Africa.
“Our journey began with the recognition that women’s roles in mining were undervalued. Mining is also often seen as destructive, but we want to show that it can be done differently,” Otieno explained, as the day’s activities at COP28 wound down.
Adorned in a Maasai-inspired outfit and well-known in her native land, Otieno is more than just a figure of national pride. Since becoming involved in activism over a decade ago she is today in the vanguard of a movement that seeks to influence gender, environment, and the burgeoning green economy both in Tanzania and across the continent. The sector that offers huge transformational capacity is mining.
“It’s not just about extracting minerals, it’s about preserving the land for future generations,” she explained.
Her group advocates for environmentally friendly mining techniques and stringent rehabilitation of mining sites.
As global industries pivot towards green technologies, the demand for minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements, abundant in Africa, has surged. This rush, however, raises concerns about the environmental and social impacts of mining.
Otieno and her team are keen to ensure that this new wave of interest in African minerals does not repeat the mistakes of the past.
One of Wemo’s key initiatives is to lobby for local green industries to process minerals at home, asserting that is where real value lies.
“We have the resources here in Africa to not only extract but also process these minerals. By building green industries locally, we create jobs and keep the value within our communities,” she explained.
Tanzania’s first female miner Pili Hussein famously said in a 2017 UN report, “I became a man, just to access the mines.” While a lot has changed when it comes to gender inclusion and representation, Wemo is working to ensure that women benefit more widely from mining activities.
In Tanzania, Wemo has been instrumental in initiating community-based projects that empower women economically along the precious minerals value chain.
By getting training providers to focus on gender diversity, for example, Wemo hopes the mining industry can build a workforce that’s more inclusive and varied.
These projects are not just transforming the mining sector, they’re reshaping communities and fostering a new generation of environmentally-conscious miners, many of whom Otieno hopes will be women.
A mix of different viewpoints, experiences, and skills also help organisations to come up with new ideas and solve problems, which is good for the industry’s growth.
Otieno explained that her commitment to sustainable practices is deeply personal. Having witnessed the degradation of landscapes due to irresponsible mining, she is now adamant about the need for rehabilitation of mining sites.
“After the minerals are extracted, we cannot leave the land barren. We must restore it, plant trees, and make it fertile again,” she stated passionately.
The efforts have not gone unnoticed. Wemo’s work is gaining traction both locally and internationally, drawing attention to the importance of the role of women in the green economy.
Otieno’s team, primarily composed of women, is not just challenging gender norms but also proving that environmentally responsible mining is feasible and profitable.
At COP28, Wemo’s agenda is, if possible, even more ambitious – to position sustainable, gender-inclusive mining, beneficiation and environmental rehabilitation in Africa at the forefront of global climate action.
Their advocacy is seen as especially critical for African nations facing the dual challenge of economic development and environmental conservation.
“We want to show the world that it’s possible to mine sustainably,” asserted Teddy Goliama, a Gemmologist and Diamond Valuer at Wemo.
As large-scale mining becomes more digitised and gears up to boost the production of copper, lithium, and the other essential minerals needed for low-carbon energy transitions, there is a huge opportunity for the inclusion of women, Goliama noted.
“Our focus is on training women in sustainable mining techniques, advocating for better policies, and promoting the use of technology that minimizes environmental impact.”
Wemo hopes their model can be replicated across Africa because all hands must be on the deck for lasting reforms in the continent’s mining sector.
As the conversation shifts to the future, Otieno becomes increasingly optimistic.
“We are seeing more women take on leadership roles in mining. They are becoming drivers of change, ensuring that the sector contributes positively to both our economy and our environment.”
bird story agency