Mays Business School’s focus on creating high impact learning experiences has revealed an opportunity for Aggies to empower independent miners in Africa’s gemstone industry. Faculty and students in the Master of Science in Management Information Systems (MS-MIS) program are working with non-profit Virtu Gem to create a robust e-commerce website. The e-store makes it possible for independent miners from Malawi and Zambia to sell directly to gemstone markets, facilitating source country gem miners and traders in virtual sales.

This effort, which aligns with Mays vision of advancing the world’s prosperity, especially benefits African female miners, who face deep cultural biases in the mostly male-dominated African mining field. These biases restrict access to more lucrative jobs, lower prices for their gemstones, and expose the women to unfair labor practices. Without access to the larger and more profitable markets, female miners experience greater difficulties in profiting from their mining and mines in order to sustain themselves and their families.

The biases also hamper these women’s ability to earn fair prices from their discoveries. When female miners find a gemstone, they often use a male intermediary to make the sale as many brokers won’t work with women or only offer a tiny fraction of a stone’s value. The miners must pay a large commission to the intermediary for their assistance. “Female miners generally only get 10-20% of the value of the gems, strictly based on their gender,” said Dr. Dwayne Whitten, a clinical professor in Mays Department of Information and Operations Management.

The partnership with Virtu Gem is a natural progression of Dr. Jordana George’s initial research on the use of blockchain in the gemstone industry. “Blockchain is being used by diamond firms to ensure that diamonds stay out of the blood diamond conflicts,” said the Information and Operations Management clinical assistant professor, who began studying this area in 2019. “Blockchain also allows diamonds to be authenticated because lab-created diamonds are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from naturally mined stones.”

As her research on this topic progressed, George started focusing on the societal impact of information systems by analyzing the miner’s point of view. She realized that blockchain could be used as an emancipatory technology for female miners and invited Whitten to co-author a paper on a Tanzanian venture that helped female miners retain 95% of the export price of their stones.

George and Whitten continued to explore this research topic through interviewing individuals in the industry. Those interviews eventually led to Virtu Gem’s representatives – and the creation of a MS-MIS class project that offered real-world application and implications.

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During the fall semester, the Aggies helped Virtu Gem redesign its website to have a more robust e-commerce function. Students learned to work on the Squarespace website builder and make the site more flexible to serve both retailers and wholesalers as well as to satisfy African countries’ individual export requirements and taxes.

This project offered Mays students the opportunity to apply what they were learning in their MS-MIS program. “As part of the project, we made real deliverables for our coursework,” said Mahesh Thiagarjan ’22, an MS-MIS student from Belize who served as a product manager for this project. “All the assignments I did during the Advanced Systems Analysis and Design course were tailored to the Virtu Gem project. This helped me to obtain practical experience as a systems analyst.”

The students also gained valuable leadership experience. “I was able to understand my role of a project manager and it only confirmed my ever-growing desire to become an IT project manager,” said Deborah Uchegbulam ’22, an MS-MIS student from Nigeria who also served as a project manager during the fall semester. “I learned key skills such as leadership, communication, time management, understanding website designs, documentation, and so much more.”

Virtu Gem’s staff appreciate the expertise that Mays faculty and students brought to the project. “It’s been really wonderful to work with Mays faculty and students because they are listening in order to understand the challenges that we are facing in our source countries,” said Susan Wheeler, owner of Susan Wheeler Design and founder of Virtu Gem. “The Virtu Gem website improvements that the Mays students made are very important because the website directly and efficiently connects African female miners to the global market. Otherwise, these miners often have to live hand to mouth.”