Kenya: Taita Taveta Residents Languish in Poverty Amid Vast Mineral Deposits

Taita Taveta County is endowed with vast mineral resources but locals are yet to realise any benefits from the abundant resources in their midst. The county is home to over 40 high value gemstones.
Some of the gemstones found in the area include Tsavorite, red and green garnets, ruby, change colour, blue sapphire, pink sapphire, green tourmalines, yellow tourmalines, rhodolites and kyanites.

According to geological experts, Tsavorite and ruby are highly sought after globally, with Taita Taveta being the main source of the minerals worldwide.
Mwatate MP, Calist Mwatela, says the locals will salvage themselves from the jaws of poverty when they improve their mining technologies. Mwatela says despite being endowed with rich mineral resources, locals are yet to reap from it. "Mwatate has remained a backwater town for too long despite its huge economic potential," he said. He said plans are afoot to put up a gemstone cutting factory in Mwatate town to exploit the huge mining potential of the area.
Geological surveys indicate that substantial quantities of mineral deposits are yet to be fully explored and developed due to financial and technical constraints. "Limited knowledge in key areas such as mineral prospecting, identification of gemstones, cutting and polishing, safety requirements, managing personal finances earned from mining are the main challenges facing the small scale mining groups in the area," says the district geologist Edward Omito.


He also cites the poor market information and value assessment among the main players in the industry as another setback. Most gemstone mining activities in the area are done manually with rudimentary equipment. Even the qualities of the basic simple tools are very low and they often break.
The problem is compounded by the poor state of the roads in Mwatate, Voi and Wundanyi constituencies which are home to the mineral deposits. Most roads in the area are not tarmacked and during the rainy season they are impassable.
Taita Taveta County is ranked among the poorest counties in the nation but it has the potential to be among the top three. The population in the county as per the 2009 stands at 283,512 with a majority of the people still living below the poverty line. Poverty levels vary from division to division, with the lower plain areas where the precious stones are found ironically leading. It is estimated that 64% or 153,000 people in the county get less than a dollar a day.
Agrominerals such as limestone and phosphate rocks are also found in Taita Taveta. Industrial minerals such as Iron Ore are also found in the area and are currently mined at Kishushe by a large-scale mining company. The gemstone industry is most dominant in the area with most mining fields run by small scale mining groups.

According to Liverson Mwang'ombe, a local miner, the biggest challenges facing them are lack of water, proper mining equipment and insecurity. "To properly manage a mine, one has to have a vehicle to transport food and water to the mining fields and also be financially stable to be able to pay the casual workers," said Mwang'ombe.
He added that there is need to support the small-scale miners with equipments like compressors and other modern mining tools. "Many mines have been closed down for safety reasons since they have run short of fresh air. We need equipments like a compressor since it also supplies fresh air into the mine. However, it's very expensive and we need financial support from the government," Mwang'ombe said. "The area is also very hot and in most cases we work at night when temperatures have dropped. Sometimes we even go for weeks without taking a bath since there is no water," he said.
Mwatate district has no police station and this poses another challenge to the miners. Last year, a woman and her two children were shot dead at Kamtonga area and gemstones of unknown value stolen by the assailants.
The mining industry has been dominated by men for many years. An upsurge in mineral exploration backed by aggressive marketing campaign by local leaders has seen a number of women venture into the mining sector.

Taita Women Mining Group, led by Mrs Edith Lewela, has ventured into mining and has already tasted the benefits of the gemstone mining. The group of 20 women - most of them small-scale miners - recently completed a geology course at the JKUAT Taita Taveta branch where they acquired the mining skills. "Gemstones are precious and knowledge is precious too and that's why we left our families to take this two-week course," Edith told the Star during the launch of the course at the campus.
She says more women should venture into mining since it is more profitable than other economic activities in the region. "We have been cultivating our farms in vain since there is no rain, but now we should turn to mining since the gemstones are readily available," Edith said. She added that their next move is to undertake an Agromineral training course at the university, saying the local economy will improve once they acquire new skills and implement them.
Mining in Taita is also hampered by the problem of managing community expectations as differences over land use abound. Many locals are squatters and decry the dominance of the mining sector by people from outside the region.
In Kasigau location, a row is brewing between a private company mining ruby at the area with the locals who are demanding to get a certain percentage from the sales earned from the natural resource in order to improve their social amenities and infrastructure.

According to Ezra Mdam, a Nyangala Resource Centre member, the company has failed to supply water to the locals as one of its corporate social responsibilities."We are suffering because of water shortage yet a company is raking in billions from our natural resources without giving back to the locals," said Mdam.
Wundanyi MP Thomas Mwadeghu has proposed that all mining permits in the area be revoked by the government to pave way for proper organisation of the mining sector. "The county government structure will properly work if we reorganise the mining sector since we currently don't earn anything from it," said the lawmaker. Recently he led Kishushe location residents in signing a petition to stop the mining of iron ore by a private investor in the area.

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