In the gemstone-mining fields of Taita-Taveta County, every artisanal miner wakes up hoping it will be the last time he crawls deep into the perilous subterranean tunnels in search of the elusive multimillion-shilling rare gemstones lurking underground.
For decades, this has been the hope that sustains and drives hundreds of miners to continue toiling relentlessly in quest for the wealth hidden inside the bowels of the earth.
A few have been lucky. They struck pockets of rare gemstones and bid farewell to crippling poverty most miners endure.
Others have fallen on worse fortunes. There are heart-breaking tales of artisanal miners who blew their fortune through tragic misfortune and sheer ignorance. After finding rare stones, the miners sold these gemstones at a throwaway price for not knowing the value of what they briefly held in their hands.
Rev David Zowe, chairperson of Taita-Taveta Artisanal Miners, explains that lack of concrete knowledge on the value of minerals has led some unlucky miners to sell rare gemstones at ridiculously low prices.
“It’s a great tragedy working all your life to find gemstones only to sell it too cheaply. Such an opportunity comes once and by the time a miner realises his blunder, it is too late,” he explains.
While most artisanal miners are not expert gemologists, most have learnt their moderate skills on minerals from apprenticeships, local lore on gemstones and from handling precious stones in their line of work. Still, such knowledge is fraught with risks as vital aspects of gemstones including value, texture, clarity and shape might not be competently evaluated without specialised skills.
To address such technical gaps, the artisanal miners’ groups have partnered with local institutions including Taita-Taveta University to offer specialised training. However, the biggest boost for artisanal miners remains the Voi Gemstone and Value Addition Center; a Sh50-million government-funded gemstone processing facility located in Voi town.
Equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, the facility is poised to be a one-stop shop for artisanal miners in the region where they can have their gemstone finds inspected, weighed, valued, cut, polished and sealed.
The construction of Voi Gemstone Value Addition Center started in 2015 and ended in 2017. Equipping of the facility started in 2018 in readiness to start processing of raw gemstones.
There has been some progress to operationalize the center. These include gazettement of a committee to oversee the facility’s operations, gazettement of prices for gemstone processing and allocation of trading booths for mining groups.
With its equipment and gemstone experts, the center is expected to bring to an end exploitation of miners by unscrupulous brokers by eliminating the risk of selling an under-priced gemstone. The center is also meant to allow the government to get its rightful revenue from the gemstone business that more often is shrouded in secrecy and marked by non-disclosure of the true worth of gemstones sold to buyers.
“Miners will be safe because they will be given the right rates, best prices and market for their gemstones,” explains the chair.
Despite such a rosy outlook, the local miners are far from benefiting from this vital facility because it has yet to be commissioned, two years after it was completed.
Mr Edward Omito, the center Manager, says the center is 99 per cent complete. He adds there are only a few structural additions needed but insists the facility is properly equipped to undertake full-scale gemstone processing activities.
While giving a brief on the status of the project to the County Development Implementation and Coordination Committee, Mr. Omito said the center was currently doing limited value addition to avoid the machines becoming decrepit from long periods of non-use.
“We are doing some low scale value addition as we wait for the commissioning but the center can engage in full-capacity processing,” he said.
Amongst the pending issues include installing of security grills on windows, fixing of safe deposit boxes and partitioning of booths. The center also requires additional equipment to strengthen her operation including geological microscope and spectrometer, XRF machine, Geiger counter and light pulverizer machines.
The commissioning delay has caused jitters amongst the artisanal miners who will be the major beneficiaries.
Mr Zowe noted that the idle center is losing millions of shillings every month as government revenue. He also added that local miners have been clamoring to know the status of the project because they needed a proper market for their stones.
“The delay to open the processing center must be addressed as a matter of urgency. That the two-year project has not started operating as it was intended because of delays that can be resolved within a month is a constant pain to miners who need to use it,” he said.
In April this year, thirteen groups bid for trading booths inside the center. Five groups won the bid. They are Kuranze Kwale Development of Minerals Exploitation Miners Self Help Group from Kwale County; Tsavorite Market Auction Center Limited; Taita-Taveta Gemstone Dealers Sacco, Taita-Taveta Women in Mining and Mwatate Small-Scale Miners self-help group.
In what appears to be another blow towards the operationalizing of the gemstone center, the merger between two state departments; that of mining and petroleum saw the process of booth allocation nullified. This calls for more time as the entire process; from advertising to bidding, is repeated.
Mr Anthoni Mbaru, a miner in Mwatate, says such delays casts doubt on the Ministry of Mining’s commitment to empower artisanal and small-scale miners in the region through giving them a market.
Mr Zowe however has a more optimistic approach. Noting that the center is one of the government’s flagship projects in the mining sector, he hopes the President will have it commissioned before campaigns start next year.
By Wagema Mwangi