A year after it was completed and equipped, a Sh 30 million Voi Gemstone Processing Centre remains idle even as small-scale and artisanal miners in Taita-Taveta County call for speedy commissioning of the project to enable them get access to the international gemstone market.
To most small-scale miners, the multi-million gemology centre is a mixed tale of both hope and despair, amid anticipation that their daily toil in underground tunnels of gemstone mines would finally translate into improved livelihoods, while at the same time feeling dejected that the inexplicable long delays to commission the facility is a worrying sign that perhaps they celebrated too soon.
Taita-Taveta Artisanal Miners Association chair David Zowe said the delay to operationalize the Gemology Center was frustrating mining efforts and further contributing to impoverishing of miners in the region.
He stated that the gemology center’s main aim was to provide a fair market for artisanal miners to find good prices for their gemstone find. This would be done through elimination of exploitative dealers and unscrupulous brokers who preyed on ignorant miners. The brokers bought high-quality stones at throwaway prices because the artisanal miners lacked access to market.
“This delay to have the center up and running is hurting artisanal miners. It needs to be commissioned so that they can bring their gemstones for value addition,” he said.
The Gemology Center, a flagship project by the government, was launched in June 2015 by the then Mining Najib Balala CS amid pomp and dance.
It was a historical moment for thousands of long suffering miners who have toiled for decades digging for gemstones. In a momentous declaration, the government announced the banning of exportation of raw gemstones from 2018.
It was decided that any gemstone intended for the international market would be cut, processed, weighed, valued and packaged at Voi Gemology Center before it was cleared for export.
That was five years ago. Today, the Voi Gemology Center is complete. The grand facility, characterized by imposing architecture of concrete, glass and stone, is as impressive as it is empty. No meaningful activity takes place except occasional visitors who drive into the well-tended courtyard to marvel at its unique design.
Already, gemstone cutting and weighing machines have been installed with a professional cutter already employed at the center. The state-of-the-art laboratory is ready yet the facility is still idle.
“This facility was a flagship project by the president to save small-scale miners from exploitation by brokers. It was completed over a year ago but to date, it has not been commissioned. What is delaying this project yet our people are suffering?” posed Zowe.
During a recent County Development Implementation and Coordination Committee (CDICC) meeting in Mwatate, the County Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha said there was need to commission the project and make it accessible to artisanal miners and other users. She pointed out that the government was losing revenue running into millions of shillings from the project.
“The miners are consistently asking about the center because they have been waiting to start bringing their stones for value addition. That is money that the government will get when the facility is up and running,” she said.
Already, five booths at the facility have been allocated to gemstone dealers, a restaurant and strong rooms for storing the gemstones. Once it is operational, government agencies including banks, Kenya Revenue Authority and export agencies will be allocated offices to facilitate the exportation of gemstones to the international market. There are plans to have an additional 22 booths at the center for traders. The ministry is in the process of giving those with booth offer letters.
Mr. Benson Mwangi, Chair of the Gemology Center, blamed the outbreak of covid-19 in the country for the delay to commission the project. Mr. Mwangi, who is also the chair of Taita-Taveta Gemstone Dealers’ Sacco, said the plans to commission the center were well underway when coronavirus struck. The plans were put on hold.
“The plans were already in place to commission the project when Covid-19 outbreak struck. They were postponed but we are working with relevant stakeholders and government agencies to have it commissioned soon,” he explained.
His sentiments were echoed by Mr. Bakari Kalema, chair of Mwatate Small-Scale miners and Dealers, who said they were aware of plans to open the center before Coronavirus struck.
“We were aware of the plans to open the center but corona came and all plans were put on hold,” he said.
There are indicators that the miners’ long wait is soon set to be over. Last week, the Principal Secretary (PS) for Mining Kirimi Kaberia toured the facility and held lengthy indoor meeting with officials’ in-charge of the gemstone center. Sources say there have been mounting disquiet at the highest level of Ministry over the delay to open the project.
The PS later toured Chawia Community Based Organization (CBO) in Mwatate mining areas to meet the artisanal miners in the region. He assured them that the gemology center would be opened soon.
By Wagema Mwangi