Women and artisanal gold mining – F4M

The following is extracted from a report regarding gender issues in global artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM):

The sector is estimated to comprise nearly 45 million people worldwide. These women and men produce significant amounts of the world’s minerals, from 20% of the world’s gold to nearly 80% of coloured gemstones. Both women and men play critical roles in the sector: women were estimated in 2003 to make up nearly 30% of the global ASM workforce. Not only do they contribute directly to mineral production, but they are also heavily involved in the provision of services (e.g., mining inputs, mineral processing, etc.) to ASM communities.

Women are often restricted to more poorly paid roles such as digging (or re-treating dump materials) which affects their ability to earn as much as their male counterparts. Moreover, their double burden of unpaid household work and income earning limits the time and resources they can dedicate to their ASM work, negatively affecting both their earnings and their ability to gain positions of authority in the sector. Women have less access to finance and capital to invest in an ASM business, further disadvantaging them.

Despite these challenges, ASM remains an important source of income for women. In many cases, women can earn more in ASM than they can elsewhere, generally using income earned from ASM to support their households, contributing to local development. (‘Gender in Mining Governance’Olivia Lyster and Ashley Smith-Roberts. January 2022. International Institute for Sustainable Development.)

After initially processing to extract the gold from the rock mined underground, the waste material (known as tailings) is dumped in large heaps on mining sites. However, the inefficiency of the processing allows particles of gold to remain in the tailings and this material is re-treated usually by women.

The tailings are first spread out to dry in the sun, then milled for a second time in ball mills that are rented from mill owners on a pay-per-use basis. This liberates further gold particles, and the dry powder is gathered from the mill and then sluiced.

‘Sluicing’ entails washing the powder through a grill using water from a bucket, and the resulting slurry pours down an inclined trough. At the base of the trough, a blanket is placed which traps the heavier gold particles, extracting them from the slurry as it flows into a catchment pond below the trough. The slurry settles in the pond, with the muddy water recycled for use at the top of the trough. Once all the powder has been washed through, the mud from the bottom of the pond is shovelled onto the dump and re-treated a few times until there is not enough gold recovered to make the effort worthwhile. The Blanket is lifted from the trough and washed into a basin, the product is now called a concentrate which contains particles of gold, rock and other minerals.

According to women miners Josephine Aguttu and Rosemary Ongang’o, sluicing is a messy, back breaking, labour intensive and time-consuming job!

Some years ago, Appropriate Process Technologies (APT), in Johannesburg, South Africa, developed a concentrator called the Gold Kacha (GK). It is a mechanised piece of equipment which replaces manual sluicing. This was commercially successful with small to medium sized mines and in April 2016, thanks to fundraising help from CRED, Terry Garde commissioned, demonstrated, and left a GK in Busia, Uganda for an artisanal gold mining co-operative to use.

The next year, he returned and learned about women miners’ GK use e.g. Margaret Ongura said: ‘The GoldKacha is very, very good, it is very fast and also it reduces mercury because you don’t use mercury at all until after the GoldKacha then what you are using is very little compared to what you used before’

 It was not surprising to hear about the effectiveness of mechanical concentrating; it was a surprise to hear that less mercury was consumed in the subsequent panning of the concentrate. She continued: ‘There is no chance of the GoldKacha leaving gold behind in the sand you don’t find any gold remaining in it. The GoldKacha gets all the gold and takes it down so that the tailings have nothing, they don’t have gold at all. When we are pouring (sluicing) the sand it still has gold, but the GoldKacha remaining does not have gold and most people now believe that the GoldKacha washes and clears all gold from the tailings. We are really happy to think that God has thought about them, it is a wonder.’ At this point the group of ladies being interviewed all laughed.

Terry commented: ‘Excellent. This is a blessing to me. We already knew it was going to help the women … What we did not realise is that the GoldKacha is removing all of the gold and that it is reducing mercury.’ Not only was more gold recovered, but the users believe the concentrator removed all the gold in one pass through the device; that the tailings were now barren and of no further commercial value.

Tom Wamalwa added ‘the GoldKacha has simplified the washing of gold, you can wash within one hour a vehicle load. It would take one hour to wash a basin but now a basin takes a minute!’

The strengths of the GK are that it is simple, it can be operated by unskilled people, and it gathers fine particles of gold without mercury. However, it requires water (about one ton of water for one ton of ore) but this can be recycled. It requires electricity usually from a portable generator that powers both the water pump and the GK.  The GK remains in regular use and others have been bought or donated in Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana as standalone labour-saving technology.

Now a newly developed miniGK can again significantly improve the lot of women involved in the activity of re-treating dumps within artisanal gold mining.  In recent weeks, APT have developed a new smaller version of their mechanised concentrator the GoldKacha, partly due to pressure from Foundation for Mining (F4M) for the past few years. Along with this picture, a partner there said: ‘Hi Terry. You wanted us to make a miniGoldKacha so we did. This is the first one’

This sizing makes it convenient for small batch processing, it is much cheaper (one third of the cost of the standard GK shown alongside), is more transportable, and is easily powered by solar panels. It can be fitted on the back of a motorised tricycle or on a trailer towed by a motorcycle, allowing the miniGK to be taken to various mining sites in a day. The miners will be expected to pay for the service, or through appropriate micro-financing, buy their own.  As a stand-alone device, it replaces sluicing, but with some additional equipment it is the core item in a fully mercury-free process.

F4M has acquired only the second one to be manufactured which is now undergoing testing and trials in a workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe, prior to being taken on a tour of artisanal mining sites that are dotted around the capital city. It will include all the auxiliary kit required to show miners how to process their gold without mercury.

F4M is pleased to be a part of this ongoing initiative for artisanal gold mining, where the incentive to change starts with the right equipment. More effective gold recovery; more efficient labour saving; cheap; robust; easy to operate and maintain; reduced mercury usage. For the miners, both men and women, it’s about a service which improves their livelihoods and their quality of life.

We hope this overview is enough to encourage sponsorship or donations to a cause that has people (especially women) at its heart, despite the emphasis on technology.

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