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Government eyes billions as the historic Coltan mineral find excites the mining sector

The narrow winding rut cuts through the dense bush as it meanders its way deep into the hinterland of the remote Kiangunguru village in Ntharawe area of Embu County.

As the narrow road plunges deeper into the heart of this sun-scorched land, the vegetation turns scanty and anemic. It ends up in an expansive clearing dominated by a row of huge hills created by tons of excavated rocks and soil.

At the base of one hill, a group of bedraggled artisanal miners are bent over a greyish heap of dirt-colored boulders.

Though the unforgiving midday sun scorches their backs, their sweaty faces, streaked with dirt and marked with lines of fatigue, show steely determination.

One stocky miner in a reflector jacket straightens up. He holds up a blackish rock fragment that he inspects closely.

“It’s a small piece but we hope this discovery marks the genesis of a new dawn for artisanal miners in this region. The conditions here are not for the faint-hearted,” says the miner.

The delight in Mr. Peterson Njeru’s voice is sprinkled with a mordant dose of cautious optimism. As the Chair of Mbeere Artisanal Miners Marketing Cooperative in Embu County, his feelings are shared by many other artisanal miners in the region after the official declaration by the government on the discovery of Coltan mineral in the Mbeere and Kiritiri areas.

It triggered unprecedented excitement amongst the miners who now regard the find as a gateway to the elusive universe of economic prosperity they have been pursuing for decades.

Njeru adds that Coltan is quite prevalent in the region with many miners reporting finding it in their mining zones.

He adds that the most inspiring act by the State was the public announcement of Coltan discovery. This move has been interpreted by hundreds of artisanal miners as the surest indicator of goodwill by a government committed to fostering transparency and openness in a sector saddled by past opaqueness and skullduggery.

“That was the best thing for us. Mineral discoveries in the past were treated as top-secret. The information would only be shared amongst a few who would start to secretly exploit a resource that should also benefit us and the community. The public declaration of coltan find gives us assurance that the government wants communities and miners to benefit from its resources,” he says.

The announcement of the discovery of Coltan in Kenya was made a week ago by the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Mining, Blue Economy and Maritime Affairs Salim Mvurya during a field visit to Embu County where deposits of this critical mineral resource are located.

Coltan, often called the mineral of the future, is classified as among the key drivers of the global technological revolution due to its importance in the manufacturing of phones, computers, tablets, semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles, and other emergent communication technological devices.

Already, the Mining Department has deployed a multi-agency team of 23 specialists led by geologists for a ground-truthing exercise in Embu. The team’s mandate includes comprehensive surveying of the mapped area and conducting in-depth multiple analytical tests to determine the size, depth, geochemical properties and estimated value of this strategic mineral resource.

Mvurya noted that after conducting the National Aerial Geophysical Survey, an activity conducted to map the country’s mineral resources, the exercise disclosed the presence of 970 mineral occurrences across the 47 counties in Kenya. Coltan was amongst hundreds of minerals mapped during the survey.

This led to the launching of the ground-truthing exercise to gather comprehensive and actionable data on the country’s mineral resources.

“This activity will provide solid data on critical aspects of this resource in addition to forming the foundation for future decisions and informing plans on investors’ engagement,” said the CS.

Apart from Embu County, more deposits of Coltan have been discovered in other areas including Kora Wells in Tana River County; Mwingi North in Kitui; Nachola area in Samburu; Loima and Makutano in Turkana County and Alale in West Pokot.

With the government projecting to have the mining sector’s contribution to the national GDP rise to 10 percent by 2030 from the current one percent, the Coltan mineral becomes a timely find for Kenya.

A section of the Mbeere Artisanal Miners at their mining site in Kiangunguru in Embu County. Photo by Wagema Mwangi

However, apprehension still lingers. While the discovery of this magnitude and the potential for economic transformation for thousands of artisanal miners is cause for pride and celebration, the announcement has been met with a frisson of anxiety by a section of Kenyans owing to the gloomy history associated with this mineral. The transformative potential of Coltan is sometimes eclipsed by bleak narratives of conflicts arising from the cut-throat competition among buyers owing to the near-manic demand for this critical mineral.

Experts point out that conflicts come from the absence of a definitive legal framework and solid structure to guide the entire coltan value chain from mine to market.

The government has stated all necessary protective measures will be adopted to turn this resource into a beneficial asset for the country and its people.

Already, plans are underway to establish robust measures and have requisite documentation that will focus on the development and traceability of this vital mineral.

Anticipating a massive stampede as prospectors, brokers, and land buyers flock into the region to cash in on this mineral, leaders in Embu have cautioned local residents against wanton sale of land.

Governor Cecily Mbarire says Coltan mining has the potential to transform the lives of the residents and boost the county’s revenues through rates and royalties.

She adds that her government was committed to protecting the interests of communities living in the mining areas to ensure they benefit from that resource.

“This mineral will transform your lives. Do not be persuaded to sell your lands because what is underneath it is more valuable and will benefit you immensely,” she said.

In Kenya, Coltan is classified as a strategic mineral.  This classification implies that Coltan mining will be undertaken by National Mining Corporation, the investment arm of the government in the mining sector.

By Wagema Mwangi

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