In her growing years, Omela Ali watched her mother rise early to “farm the land” and raise eight children single-handedly in central Trinidad during the 1960s. Ali always resolved that she would do “big things.” Taking her cue from the hard work of her mother, years later, Ali moved from being a businesswoman in the agrochemical sector to becoming co-founder and CEO of Mineral Mines of Trinidad Ltd and the sole female operator of a quarry in Trinidad and Tobago. Five years into the field, she hopes to impact the economic development of this country and continue to pave the way for women who wish to enter the extractive industry or any area of business.
“When I first started, getting into a man’s world was very challenging. When I introduced myself to people in the business, they would ask me why are you coming into this business. This is a male-dominated business. We can’t see you surviving here for more than six months. You look too soft.
“You know as women, we like to take challenges. So, I took that as a stepping stone, and I said I am going to break this stereotype: women can do mining. And they said we’ll see. In six months we would not see you here. But, it has been five years, and I’m still here,” Ali told WE magazine recently.
“I told them I was going to put in blood, sweat and tears into this and that I had the strength. I had my family to support me.”
Since then, Ali said she has been accepted and respected more and more in the local mining community. Of course, she is still growing, she was quick to add.
Ali runs an open-pit form of a surface mine in Sangre Grande which excavates the aggregate gravel necessary for building infrastructure such as hospitals, roadworks, bridges, and box drains. Other surface mines in T&T excavate limestone, sand, clay and asphalt. In other countries, there are underground mines which extract materials like iron ore, coal or gemstones.
A business owner for over 30 years, Ali started out in what she termed “conventional business” and moved into agrochemicals and then construction. Yearning to fulfil a long-time dream of making a solid impact in the country’s business sector, she started researching aggregates. She discovered that the Sangre Grande/Toco area was where T&T’s gravel belt runs and challenged herself.
Delving into the extractive industry with a “positive mindset,” Ali and her family bought land and heavy equipment such as excavators and backhoes, sourced staff and built the company from scratch. Her role is to oversee the six to eight members of staff, including a quarry manager, supervisor, checker, and excavator operators, in addition to labourers they hire as needed. She runs the day-to-day operations of the quarry, ensuring that the site is safe, that the excavation schedule is carried out, and that financial goals are met. Having a mine design plan, having the excavators go down to a depth of ten to 15 feet where the gravel bed is found and selling the raw material to processing plants which churn the material into gravel are some of the activities of her work day.
She has to be physically fit for the long hours of work, has a knowledge of their equipment and be able to readily respond to an emergency. With a steady flow of purchase orders coming into her business, if there is a breakdown on site, Ali has to source equipment parts etc in the fastest possible time to get things running again.
“Our business starts early in the morning, at 5 am. We usually have a cut-off time at 3 pm, but there are always challenges, and you always have to continue, and you always have unforeseen issues. You always have to prepare for the next day. Let’s say, for example, a customer says I want two yards tomorrow, and you couldn’t fulfil that 200 yards because you have breakdowns, then you still have to fulfil that the next day. It’s not a smooth business like a conventional buy-and-sell business. The industrial business is a totally different ball game,” Ali explained.
Although the local market for her product is challenging at present as the construction sector has slowed for the past eight months, she is optimistic that things will pick up soon. She believes the quality of her product which is white gravel as opposed to brown, and the service she provides to clients have given her the edge over some competitors.
Part of Ali’s role is also to be mindful of the effects on the environment, she said, by reducing waste for instance and rehabilitating the land afterwards.
As the national ambassador for the Delve Exchange Programme, an online programme which helps educate and connect female artisanal and small-scale miners, allowing them to exchange knowledge and experiences, Ali helps educate others about her journey and business practices. Partnering with the Association of Women in Mining in Africa, The University of Queensland, the World Bank, the OECD and the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme, under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Exchange currently operates in six regions, including Africa, South and Central Asia, and the Caribbean.
Pointing out that in countries like Guyana, Suriname, Zambia, and Kenya women lead the mining industries, Ali felt T&T women had the capacity to follow suit, especially since organisations like the Exchange offered guidance and support.
The mother of two grown children and wife of a “wonderful, supportive” husband said over her three decades in business, she always felt she had a greater purpose.
“I wanted to be an example, part of something bigger. I want to leave a legacy behind that my journey here on this earth meant something. Not only for my children but for young women, and any women who are looking for a path in the extractive sector. If the path is already laid, they can follow through and say if she did it we can do it also.”
Rather than restrict her, Ali felt her “humble beginnings” in Central only served to fuel her determination to succeed. Her father passed when she was nine months and her mother had to raise eight children alone, the eldest of whom was 14.
“Me looking at her and how hard she worked, and the strength she put out to take care of her children in the ‘60s as a single woman; raise every one of us, send us to school, make sure we had food to eat, clothes, a house, everything, that is where I got my inspiration,” Ali insisted.
She recalled her mother as a caring, generous lady, who was well-respected in her community. She saw her cultivate sugarcane, corn, peas and other crops like cabbage, tomatoes, and rice. The elder lady also worked as a labourer with the Ministry of Works and would come home to prepare a meal for the children and go back into the fields, Ali recalled.
When Ali was 17, he mother died. She had to make her own way and develop emotionally. Involving herself in the business of land is her way of carrying on her mother’s legacy to her, she believes.
Ali also feels she inherited the hard-working and caring nature of her mother, as she sees herself as being willing to help and give to others, and boasts a nice rapport with her workers. She hopes to establish “something big” like a halfway house, especially for single women, and a learning and activity centre for children.
The adversities she has faced have thought her to have no regrets.
“I had a tough life, but I also stopped to smell the roses along the way. Life is not a competition. Life is a journey. We have to help transfer what we learn into something useful to help the generations to come,” she said.