Lake Victoria Gold Programme

Fighting child labour and mercury use in East Africa

Gold-rich deposits around Lake Victoria in East Africa have created livelihoods for thousands of low-income communities. Yet the cost has been huge. Mines use mercury to process the ore, a method that’s both inefficient and vastly detrimental to health.

Many of them resort to child labour to make a lack of mechanisation economically sustainable. In the short term, this work is unhealthy and dangerous. The long-term impact is just as severe – mine work denies children access to education and so condemns them to working unskilled, low income jobs as adults.

Far-reaching problems that demand coordinated and collaborative solutions

These issues – the use of mercury in ore processing and mine operator’s reliance on child labour – are deep-rooted, and represent challenges that can only be addressed by a combined effort. In Lake Victoria, we’ve helped to bring together a unique multi-stakeholder partnership at a local, national and international level that addresses problems systemically by uncovering underlying causes and executing appropriate practical solutions.

As part of this programme, we collaborate with our local implementation partners to invest in artisanal gold mines in Geita, Tanzania; in Migori, Kenya; and in Busia, Uganda. 

In Uganda, our wider programme to address child labour and mercury use is managed by our strategic partners – Fairphone and other Dutch electronics manufacturers, UNICEF, Fairtrade Africa, Solidaridad and Hivos.

Capacity-building investment that takes children out of the mines

Our model of continuous improvement – the Impact Escalator – gives mines access to the investment finance they need to purchase the modern extractive and processing equipment required to run efficient, productive and profitable operations. 

This fundamental structural shift in the way mines operate means that child labour can become a non-issue – mines are profitable enough to pay adults living wages and their new dependence on mechanisation means a new reliance on skilled and trained adult employees.

In tandem, our local partners in the field are focused on getting children out of the mines and back into education. Working within mining communities, they are identifying children at risk and engaging with families on the dangers of child labour and the benefits of education.

Taking mercury out of the equation by investing in new ore processing technology 

Mercury isn’t the only way – nor even the most efficient way – to process ore and recover gold. Our efforts have focused on developing safer and more efficient alternative technologies, like gravity-based ore processing circuits, and providing mining communities with this equipment in centralised processing centres. 

This new technology simultaneously eliminates the need for mercury while increasing the recovery rate of gold to as much as 95% – about twice as much as traditional gold ore processing methods.

A world-first initiative, these new centralised processing centres are part of our model to scale sustainable and responsible gold production through new mining techniques. They’re also clear evidence of how putting a relatively simple and inexpensive technology in place can transform artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities, bringing increased economic prosperity while tackling risks to health and safety.