Miners in Kenya are seeking the Voi Gemology Center to be commissioned. In the gemstone-mining fields of Taita-Taveta County, every artisanal miner wakes up hoping it will be the last time he crawls deep into the perilous subterranean tunnels in search of the elusive multimillion-shilling rare gemstones lurking underground.
For decades, this has been the hope that sustains and drives hundreds of miners to continue toiling relentlessly in quest for the wealth hidden inside the bowels of the earth. A few have been lucky. They struck pockets of rare gemstones and bid farewell to crippling poverty most miners endure. Others have fallen on worse fortunes. There are heart-breaking tales of artisanal miners who blew their fortune through tragic misfortune and sheer ignorance. After finding rare stones, the miners sold these gemstones at a throwaway price for not knowing the value of what they briefly held in their hands.
Rev David Zowe, chairperson of Taita-Taveta Artisanal Miners, explains that lack of concrete knowledge on the value of minerals has led some unlucky miners to sell rare gemstones at ridiculously low prices.
“It’s a great tragedy working all your life to find gemstones only to sell it too cheaply. Such an opportunity comes once and by the time a miner realises his blunder, it is too late,” he explains.
While most artisanal miners are not expert gemologists, most have learnt their moderate skills on minerals from apprenticeships, local lore on gemstones and from handling precious stones in their line of work. Still, such knowledge is fraught with risks as vital aspects of gemstones including value, texture, clarity and shape might not be competently evaluated without specialised skills.
To address such technical gaps, the artisanal miners’ groups have partnered with local institutions including Taita-Taveta University to offer specialised training. However, the biggest boost for artisanal miners remains the Voi Gemstone and Value Addition Center; a Sh50-million government-funded gemstone processing facility located in Voi town.
Equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, the facility is poised to be a one-stop shop for artisanal miners in the region where they can have their gemstone finds inspected, weighed, valued, cut, polished and sealed.
The construction of Voi Gemstone Value Addition Center started in 2015 and ended in 2017. Equipping of the facility started in 2018 in readiness to start processing of raw gemstones. There has been some progress to operationalize the center. These include gazettement of a committee to oversee the facility’s operations, gazettement of prices for gemstone processing and allocation of trading booths for mining groups.
With its equipment and gemstone experts, the center is expected to bring to an end exploitation of miners by unscrupulous brokers by eliminating the risk of selling an under-priced gemstone. The center is also meant to allow the government to get its rightful revenue from the gemstone business that more often is shrouded in secrecy and marked by non-disclosure of the true worth of gemstones sold to buyers.
“Miners will be safe because they will be given the right rates, best prices and market for their gemstones,” explains the chair.
Despite such a rosy outlook, the local miners are far from benefiting from this vital facility because it has yet to be commissioned, two years after it was completed. Mr Edward Omito, the center Manager, says the center is 99% complete. He adds there are only a few structural additions needed but insists the facility is properly equipped to undertake full-scale gemstone processing activities.
Amongst the pending issues include installing of security grills on windows, fixing of safe deposit boxes and partitioning of booths. The center also requires additional equipment to strengthen her operation including geological microscope and spectrometer, XRF machine, Geiger counter and light pulverizer machines. The commissioning delay has caused jitters amongst the artisanal miners who will be the major beneficiaries.
Mr Zowe noted that the idle center is losing millions of shillings every month as government revenue. He also added that local miners have been clamoring to know the status of the project because they needed a proper market for their stones.
“The delay to open the processing center must be addressed as a matter of urgency. That the two-year project has not started operating as it was intended because of delays that can be resolved within a month is a constant pain to miners who need to use it,” he said.