Home > Business & Finance > New dawn for artisanal miners as gemology center set to open in February

New dawn for artisanal miners as gemology center set to open in February

At 58, Janelize Mshai, is feeling her age. She is growing old. Her hair is greying at the edges. Crowfeet develops at the corners of her eyes. Even her body senses the change. She gets fatigued quicker than she did in the past. Even her once resilient muscles no longer swing a mallet as gracefully as they used to.

“We have grown old but then having been in this sector for close to 19 years, what do you expect?” she poses.

From chipping away at the bases of towering rocky cliffs to encountering herds of rampaging elephants from Tsavo National Park, the gemstones fields of Kasighau are treacherous places to venture in. With the ever-present threat from scorpions, poisonous snakes and torrid hours spent in claustrophobic underground tunnels hunting for gemstones, the enormous odds stacked against bedraggled artisanal miners becomes clear.

Despite such monumental challenges, hope burns bright in the hearts of many bedraggled artisanal miners scattered across several mining zones across Taita-Taveta County.

Ms. Mshai is one such miner. Even with her declining years, she is not about to let go. She feels her two-decades worth of toil in the gemstones’ fields in hunt of the elusive precious stones; a feat fit for immortalization in fireside narratives; is about to pay dividends.

“I have been mining since 2004. I have not lost hope that this can be a beneficial business to women too,” she says.

As the chairperson of Mkamenyi Women Mining Group in Kasighau region, her indefatigable spirit is a beacon that keeps the other members energized. She is amongst the few women engaged in artisanal mining. While the numbers of artisanal miners, both registered and unregistered, run into thousands across the county, women are greatly outnumbered by men.

This equation has to do with the nature of artisanal mining. As a sector fraught with risks and hardships, the lack of modern mining equipment subject miners to long hours of hard work using crude tools.

The torrid working environment that requires brawn and great resilience is hostile to most women miners. The traditional expectations of women to be mothers and homemakers, does not make it easier for those who want to be miners.

Despite such challenges, Ms. Mshai has persevered. Over the years, she has learnt to expertly juggle between her domestic duties and role as a miner. Still, the practice of walking to the mining area every morning and going back home in the evening takes a toll on her.

“We are like day scholars because we must go home every evening. Men are like boarders and they can spend several days without going home,” she explains.

The biggest factor that drives her perseverance is her undying belief that mining of gemstones might soon become a major-income earner for women artisanal miners. She says that the sector, once properly secured and supported, will transform thousands of rural livelihoods and spur development of the county at unprecedented rates.

“The government needs to strengthen the support given to artisanal miners. It should make this sector profitable so that our labor should not go in vain,” she explains.

One of the deliberate steps by the government to help artisanal miners, is the construction of the 60-million State-of-the-art Voi gemstone Value Addition Center.

Constructed in 2018, the grand facility boasts of multi-million shillings gemology lab, equipped with the latest lapidary equipment.

It also has secure safety deposit boxes, traders’ booths and rooms for high-grade trading of gemstones.

Mr. Edward Omito, the Center Manager, says the facility has been assisting in low-scale value addition for artisanal miners in polishing and grading their stones. Amongst other services offered include grading, identification, cutting and pricing of precious stones. He adds that the center will be invaluable to artisanal miners in assisting them to get the true value of their gemstone find.

“The Center will give the miners the true value of their products together with the price rating. They will finally sell gemstones at the right price,” he says.

One of the most persistent challenges that have faced the artisanal mining sector is exploitative selling process, where unscrupulous buyers purchase very expensive stones for pittance. Ignorant of the intricate procedures of selling gemstones and unaware of prevailing market dynamics, most debts-ridden artisanal miners often end- up selling their hard-earned stones to brokers and other unscrupulous buyers for a few thousand shillings.

The buyers, well networked and with access to the international market, easily make millions at the expense of the miner. It is this trend that the Center is expected to break for artisanal miners to start benefiting from the gemstone sector.

Mr. David Zowe, the Chair of County Artisanal Miners, says buying any gemstone at a price that falls far below the true value of a stone, is nothing short of theft and blatant exploitation of a miner’s labor.

He adds that the gemology center will specifically give the correct pricing to artisanal miners to protect them from being exploited. This, he adds, will empower them with knowledge and disempower the exploitative buyers.

“The artisanal miners who are at the bottom of the mining ladder will get to know the true value of their stones. This center is the biggest ally to such miners who have suffered for decades from loss-selling,” he says.

Mr. Zowe predicts that the government will see significant increase in revenue from sale of gemstones as all transactions will be sealed at the Center. Currently, most sales are done in the bush and in hotels without any documentation, denying government taxes.

“The artisanal miners are desperate to sell. This desperation is exploited by unscrupulous buyers. And because such deals are done in the bush or in hotels, a lot of revenue meant for development is lost. The center will put a stop to that,” he explains.

He further explains that miners will flock to the center to get correct valuation of their stones. This will force buyers to be using the center which will eliminate exploitative deals sealed behind closed doors in hotels.

Mr. Rogers Chimega, advisor to Cabinet Secretary for Mining and Maritime Affairs Salim Mvurya, says there are plans to officially commission the center at the end of February. While addressing a gathering of senior county officials in Voi, the adviser said preparations were at an advanced stage to have the facility opened by the President to bolster the bottom-up approach in artisanal miners’ empowerment.

“We are engaged in making sure everything works well before the Center is officially commissioned by the President by the end of February” he said.

By Wagema Mwangi

Leave a Reply