Gems Keep Giving: the Inaugural Project

Posted By: Douglas Hucker News,


In 2019, just prior to the dark days of the Covid outbreak, Damien Cody—then vice president of the ICA—brought a vision to the Board of Directors. That vision became the genesis for the "Gems Keep Giving" (GKG) initiative, which was designed to support and improve conditions throughout the world related to artisanal mining and gem cutting.

The Gems Keep Giving idea was born directly after a 2019 industry meeting to discuss the push for a transparent supply chain,” explains Damien Cody. “Whilst many were focusing on auditing and blockchain technology, Clement Sabbagh (the ICA President at the time) and I strongly felt that, because 80% of our colored gemstones are supplied by small artisanal miners, we needed to take steps to provide meaningful help to these communities where we could.” Cody and the Board understood that these activities were predominantly carried out by small artisanal miners and cutters in local communities, and very often under difficult circumstances.

With more than 600 members—primarily miners and dealers of colored gemstones, located throughout the globe—it was clear that ICA was uniquely situated to understand, identify, and develop positive programs to assist in communities that might be in need. As a result, Gems Keep Giving became a reality, created initially as a committee of the ICA.

Map of Kenya with detail of the area where the village of Kamtonga is located. (Image is courtesy of the United Nations, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

The stated aim is to solicit donations from members of the gem industry, at large, for funds to support aid efforts, with all the money raised going to the projects. The next step for the GKG committee was to solicit proposals from the worldwide ICA membership to identify worthy recipients in need. Among the GKG’s goals are helping to improve health and well-being of the community, quality education, gender equality, clean water, and sanitation.

In 2021, the Board selected a water purification project in Kenya in a village called Kamtonga, located in the Tsavo region between the East and West Tsavo National Parks in the southwestern part of the country. Kamtonga is a small community of approximately 3000 people, most of whom survive through limited agricultural farming and livestock.

When the government tanks would run dry at the local primary sochool, the villagers had to travel several kilometers to fill their plastic jugs from a lake.

Life is also made more difficult because of chronic drought conditions, as well as the lack of piped water and insignificant employment opportunities. Consequently, many of the men and women in Kamtonga supplement their income through artisanal mining efforts in the mineral-rich East African rift valley.

With an understanding of the needs of the mining community, ICA members Miriam (Mimo) Kamau and Evan Caplan—who jointly own a garnet mine in the Kamtonga area—envisioned a plan to bring freshwater to the local primary school in the village. Most of the school’s 500 students are the sons and daughters of local artisanal miners.

Although Kamtonga’s primary school has two water tanks supplied by the government, they are only filled once a year so, for most of the time, the children don’t have potable water. When the government tanks run dry, the villagers must travel several kilometers to get water from a local lake as well as try and collect rainwater at their homes. Not only was this process arduous, but it also impacted the students’ ability to attend school, since their family needed them to collect water.

A group of supporters, engineers, and local people gather for the inauguration of the water project in Kamtonga in October 2023, made possible by ICA's Gems Keep Giving project.
The school children came to watch as the engineers drilled a hole 200 meters down to reach the underground aquifer.

The plan, which the GKG committee approved, was to work with local experts to determine the feasibility of drilling a well on the school property in the hope of providing safe drinking water for the students, their families, and to the extent possible, to the entire community.

The overall objective is to improve the health and well-being of the community, while developing plans for sustainable agricultural activities that can provide the community with a reliable source of produce.

Evan Kaplan (third from right) and
Mimo (second from right) spearheaded
the project and organized to
have feasibility, hydrological,
and geophysical studies conducted to
move the plan forward.

Evan and Miriam then began working with community and governmental stakeholders to move the plan forward in order to obtain feasibility, hydrological, and geophysical studies, as well as an environmental impact assessment.

Once completed, the appropriate engineering firms were hired, and the project began. It included: drilling a 200-meter hole to the underground aquifer; installing the infrastructure for a pump to bring water to the surface; the installation of an above ground tank to hold the water; the installation of a solar panel array to provide power for the pumps; and finally, the installation of a water purification system to remove any harmful chemicals and minerals from the water.

Contractors were brought in, and the work began in 2022. By 2023, the infrastructure was in place and the water began flowing. The well was dedicated to ICA and Gems Keep Giving, and the entire community of parents, students, and staff joined in to celebrate the event.

In October 2023, I went to Kenya for the wedding of two very dear friends in Nairobi. I was joined by Pearl Ng, another ICA Board of Directors member and several friends who were also there for the occasion. After the wedding, Evan and Miriam invited the group to visit the Kamtonga Primary School to view the project’s progress. It was a very uplifting and moving experience for all of us.

Since the onset of bringing water to the school children, considerable progress has been made. A water filtration plant has been installed that is capable of producing 1000 liters per hour using a system of reverse osmosis to ensure that the water is safe to drink. The plant has a 500-liter holding tank, and a larger storage tank has been installed on the school property. Lines have been run from the filtration plant to every third classroom in the school, so the students have ready access to safe drinking water.

They also regularly take water to their homes, which is infinitely easier than the treks they used to make to get water. Additionally, for bottling water, a filling station, double sink bottle rinser, and packaging table have been set up.

Evan Caplan (center) inside the facility housing the water filtration system that is capable of producing 1000 liters of purified water per hour, thus supplying safe drinking water to the students and the community.
The author (left) and Evan Caplan observing how the water filtration system works. Students also can take water home.

Importantly, a garden has been tilled and planted, providing fresh produce for the students’ lunches, improving their diets and thus their health. The children participate in the maintenance of the gardens, and proper agricultural practices have become part of the school’s curriculum. Parents also volunteer their time to help.

Part of the Gems Keep Giving project is to include a garden, whose produce feeds the school children, thus improving their diet. Students also learn to plant vegetables for the garden, as part of the sustainablity efforts of Gems Keep Giving

The garden produces enough vegetables to feed the children of the school as well as to sell modest amounts to the community. The proceeds from these sales are managed by the school committee and provide the necessary funds to supplement the students’ diet as well as ongoing maintenance required to keep the solar array and pumping stations in proper working order. The extra money from the garden also lets the school barter for necessary seed and fertilizer for the crops.

Miriam poses with one of the students in the garden.

Surplus vegetables from the garden are sold to the community at large to help pay for maintenance of the water pump and filtration infrastructure.

The opportunity for us to visit the Kamtonga Primary School, see the progress that has been made, and to meet with the students and parents was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I am proud to have been part of this industry’s ongoing efforts to improve conditions in producing countries, to pursue strategies for sustainability, and to enhance the transparency of supply chains. These endeavors are critical for our industry and must be vigorously pursued. As an industry, we must make vital and worthwhile efforts directed to improving the lives that we touch.

In Kamtonga, we were able to see the results of our efforts—not from 30,000 feet—but up close and personal on the ground. Being able to change the lives and bring such progress to one small community was life changing. Not just for the students in the community but for myself.

Students show their excitement for the water project and surround Evan Caplan in the school's courtyard.

We at ICA look forward to reaching out with a helping hand to other artisanal mining and cutting communities that could benefit from Gems Keep Giving projects.

The Kamtonga Primary School Water Project was the perfect inauguration for GKG. It’s a wonderful manifestation of Damien Cody’s dream and vision and validates our Board of Directors’ decision to support the concept with its resources. It is also a living affirmation that programs such as the JCK Industry Fund, which gave generously to help support the project, are indispensable.

And, last but not least, it would not have been possible without the incredible passion, hands-on participation, and commitment of two truly selfless individuals—Evan Caplan and Miriam Mimo Kamau.

I also express my heartfelt thanks to the many people, including ICA members, who contributed to this effort with their generosity.

For information on how you can participate in Gems Keep Giving or have ideas for other projects, please email me at or visit

Photos are courtesy of the author unless otherwise specified.