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In a country like Kenya, where tsavorite, blue sapphire, and ruby stones are plucked from the earth en masse each year and exported across the globe, small-scale mining represents a significant proportion of its mining activities. With Taita Taveta County serving as the largest producer of gemstones in Kenya, where small-scale mining accounts for more than 60 percent of its annual production, and with roughly 30 million artisanal miners working across Africa as of 2016, according to the World Bank, gemstone mining is a significant source of employment and an important foreign exchange earner for both national and county governments.

Just as the onset and spread of the COVID-19 health pandemic has impacted countries and professions all over the world, it has affected global artisanal and small-scale mining, and Kenyan miners have not escaped the fallout. Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 12, 2020, the Kenyan government has taken steps to manage its spread. These steps have included  social distancing mandates, travel restrictions, and the suspension of social gatherings, as well as the closure of the Kenya-Tanzania border due to the surging COVID-19 numbers in Tanzania.

More than merely introducing new issues to the global economy, the COVID-19 crisis has accentuated the pre-existing challenges, particularly for the artisanal mining sector. One striking issue is the lack of strong institutions to protect the lives of artisanal and small-scale miners, as well as the environment. 

While the Kenya Mining and Minerals Policy, for instance, provides guidelines on the development of mining and mineral resource sectors, artisanal mining still faces barriers to technological, employment, social, and environmental protections, and artisanal miners are vulnerable on a range of fronts. The mining work, itself, is informally organized and labor intensive, and uses rudimentary mining methods, thereby, giving rise to increased risks of unsafe working conditions. Such dangers are exacerbated by the fact that most mines are located in remote areas with little access to appropriate healthcare infrastructure. 

More than that, many miners have low levels of education and largely lack access to good market information, limiting their ability to exert bargaining power when selling the gemstones that they have mined. 

project started last year aims to bring together mining stakeholders in Taita Taveta to try to reverse these conditions, as well as the poverty that tends to be prevalent in mining communities, by designing bottom-up solutions for a more responsible and inclusive mining sector. Known as the Sustainable Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Project, the newly-formed initiative is led by the University of Nottingham and funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund.

As part of the project, academics have maintained contact with miners in Taita Taveta County. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, they conducted telephonic interviews with 16 artisanal miners, which provided them with a rare insight into the impact that COVID-19 is having on the specific sub-sector. 

While the miners’ working conditions expose them to significant health and safety risks, these risks are heightened in the face of a global health pandemic. They lack appropriate protective gear and equipment. Their communal living hostels are congested and lack good sanitation and water provision. These conditions make compliance with hygiene and social distancing requirements challenging. Miners have no disposable income to purchase water, soap or personal protective equipment necessary to fight COVID-19. 

Living Through COVID-19

The government-mandated COVID-19 measures in Kenya have slowed down artisanal mining activities, which has affected the livelihoods of miners and mining communities. The suspension of mining operations in Taita Taveta since March 26, 2020, for instance, has halted gemstone production in its entirety. 

At the same time, there have been significant disruptions in the value chain. For example, international travel restrictions continue to affect market access and prices. Most miners interviewed experienced market price fluctuations triggered by international dealers’ inability to buy gemstones. At the national level, the COVID-19 environment has created a buyers’ market. 

The miners interviewed said they were worried that intermediaries were taking advantage of their “hand-to-mouth” lifestyles to purchase gemstones at incredibly low prices. The miners revealed that they little choice but to sell at low prices in order to feed their families. At the same time, academics suspect that dealers and exporters with financial capital are stockpiling the low-cost stones in order to sell for big profits when the market becomes favorable again. 

While such shifts in pricing bode well for jewelry giants, the lack of gemstones revenues is having devastating effects on the well-being of miners. Many said they were experiencing anxiety and some raised mental health concerns. Many of miners and their families are relying on humanitarian aid from organizations, such as the Taita Taveta County COVID-19 resource mobilization team; others have turned to farming or selling woven baskets, jeweler and secondhand clothes as alternative sources of livelihood.

What is Next?

In early May, the Taita Taveta county government directed the reopening of mines under strict COVID-19 preventative and mitigating measures. The mines are restricted to a maximum of 15 people working in a mining site per shift. While the slow reopening of the mines has enabled individuals to get back to work, this reduced workforce and production capacity, coupled with high costs of mining inputs and food supplies, has, nonetheless, increased the risks to the sector even further. 

The pandemic has exposed systemic issues that limit artisanal and small-scale mining abilities to drive socio-economic development in the region, prompting academics and researchers to call on the sector, as a whole, to embrace a comprehensive approach to deliver critically needed infrastructure, includeing proper healthcare, education and living quarters for miners. Long-term interventions also need to be put in place, such as health insurance.

In addition, they are adamant that the value chain systems need to change. This involves developing robust mining data and market information systems, mapping gemstone supply chains, developing a calculated risks index, and establishing a well-organized market infrastructure. 

Local government entities, such as Kenya’s Voi Gemstone Centre, are strategically positioned to support the development of innovative trading platforms and digital tools that help visualize gemstone market flows. These organizations, prompted by the onset on the COVID-19 pandemic, can also coordinate efforts to build capacity for gemstone identification, valuation, marketing and value addition, and artisanal mining financing, ultimately rebuild a more resilient sector.

Judy N. Muthuri is an Associate Professor in Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Nottingham. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)