Amongst the armies of bedraggled artisanal miners toiling in the gemstone fields of Tsavo landscape, an old legend speaks of a precious stone that blesses its finder. It is considered the holy grail in the family of precious stones. For gemstone connoisseurs and international collectors, it is the ultimate must-get prize to crown a collector’s life achievements.
“Tsavorite remains the most sought-after stone by miners and dealers because it is rare and very valuable. It is considered a uniquely Kenyan product because it is found in Taita-Taveta County,” says Mr. David Zowe, Chair of Taita-Taveta Artisanal Miners Association.
Famed for its legendary beauty characterized by vibrant green hue, Tsavorite has eclipsed other precious stones to acquire a royalty-like status. To the miners it is not just the magic stone that turns paupers into millionaires but also the promised gateway that leads to the land of great riches.
As a region, Taita-Taveta County is home to several types of semi-precious and precious stones. They include rubies, amethyst, tourmalines, kynanites, red garnets and peridot amongst others. The region also has other industrial minerals like iron ore, quartz and manganese. However, no mineral has captured the imagination of miners in the region and beyond as Tsavorite.
Tsavorite is emblematic of the vast potential the region has for becoming a global mining powerhouse and transforming the lives of thousands of residents who are currently wallowing in poverty. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) 2021 Poverty Report indicated that Taita Taveta County has a 33.9 percent poverty index, slightly lower than the national average of 38.6 percent.
While mining remains a multi-billion shillings’ sector, the fortunes and revenue from this lucrative industry have all but failed to translate into better lives for local residents. The sector losses millions annually to wanton smuggling of Tsavorite, non-disclosure of sales by traders and deliberate failure by dealers and miners to pay the required royalties to the state.
To tackle these challenges, the government recently categorized Tsavorite as one of the 14 strategic minerals in Kenya. Strategic minerals are considered extremely vital to a country’s economic wellbeing in addition to being critical to sensitive sectors like defense. Other minerals listed as strategic in Kenya include radio-active minerals like Uranium and Thorium, Cobalt, Copper, Graphite and Niobium amongst others.
As a new entrant to this special category, Tsavorite seems to have come of age. This means the entire value chain of prospecting, exploring, mining, trading and dealing in this gem must be sanctioned by the government.
The Mining Principal Secretary (PS) Elijah Mwangi says miners keen on mining Tsavorite will work closely with the National Mining Corporation (NMC) to ensure compliance. He adds that licensing and issuance of permits will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“Those who want to mine Tsavorite will work with the government through the National Mining Corporation to ensure compliance and adherence to the guidelines,” he says.
He adds that the government is outlawing the exporting of uncut gemstones and is advocating for processing all precious stones destined for the international market. The value-addition will see miners get significantly better prices and value for their products.
The involvement of the government in mining Tsavorite has been hailed by the artisanal miners as a timely move that will restore order in a sector disrupted and dominated by unscrupulous local and international dealers. It is also seen as a deliberate effort by the state to eradicate the smuggling of the precious stone and compel miner and dealers to operate wholly from the newly-opened Sh 50-million Voi Gemology, Value Addition and Marketing Center.
Mr. Stephen Mwadime, Chair of Mwatate-based Chawia Minerals Community Based Organization (CBO) says miners will support moves that are intended to empower them.
“As artisanal miners, we have no problem with this move if it will shield miners from exploitation and make their hustle profitable. The dealers and buyers might complain but this move will benefit the miner because the government has come on board” he says.
His sentiments are echoed by Mr. Zowe who notes the government will realize increased annual revenue collected from the gemstone sector. He adds that over the years, the government has been losing huge amounts of revenue from lack of transparency in the trade and tax evasion by rogue dealers who engage in multi-million shillings deals but never pay anything to the state.
He disclosed that Taita-Taveta County was receiving little share of mining royalty from the national government because the state was collecting pittance from the region. The Mining Act 2016 directs that royalties from mining activities are shared on the basis of 70 percent to the national government, 20 percent to the County government and 10 percent to the community where mining takes place.
Mr. Zowe says out of the Sh 51 million the county was getting, proceeds from sale of gemstones contributed less than 10 percent of the total revenues. This paled in comparison to the neighboring Kwale County which was receiving over one billion shillings.
“Gemstones are the most expensive items we have yet they contribute the least in terms of royalties. A lot of money is not getting to the government and this must stop. We end up losing as a county,” he said.
Already, the government has announced plans to patent Tsavorite and transform it into an international brand with a unique Kenyan identity.
PS Mwangi states that through patenting of Tsavorite, the government was keen on promoting and enhancing brand Kenya and positioning the county as a home to some of the rarest gemstones in the world. This move will be key in stopping international gemstones smuggling syndicates from appropriating Kenya’s Tsavorites and marketing it as precious stones from other countries.
“This will help us protect the brand and make it more valuable in the international market,” says the PS.
There have been incidents in the past where Tsavorites from Kenya were being presented as stones from other countries at international gemstone exhibitions in a blatant case of gem-identity fraud.
By Wagema Mwangi