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Impacts of Covid-19 on ASM Operations in Kenya

Mine site level operators washing ore for gold in Western Kenya
Photo courtesy Peter Munyi

Article jointly posted on Mining Hub Africa and Delve

By Peter Munyi, Pact Data Collection Consultant

At the moment, it is true to say that almost each of us has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have been forced to adapt to a new way of life as governments fight to flatten the notorious infection curve. Our resilience has been tested by an enemy invisible to the naked eye, with many sectors of the economy struggling to keep up. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities have not been spared either and are having a hard time dealing with the new reality. I have spent the past few weeks collecting data as part of the wider World Bank-funded Delve initiative to collect data on Covid-19 impacts on ASM operations, as a consultant for the NGO Pact in Kenya. I have had direct conversations with ASM operators working in gold and gemstone fields in Kakamega and Taita Taveta county respectively and other stakeholders in the ASM sector who shared their Covid-19 experiences. This article provides an account of experiences from the start of the pandemic until 1st July 2020.

Like most of us, the ASM operators started the year on a high with promising prices for gemstones as global demand especially in Asian markets rose. The miners could competitively sell the gemstones to the highest bidding buyer and life seemed to be normal. Financiers could sponsor mining activities easily with guaranteed return on investment. Artisanal gold fields were full of activities; from ore extraction to crushing and processing. Food vendors around the mining sites were common, with gold buyers moving from one mine site to another to fetch the precious metal. Most ASM operators reported that January and February were good months for their business and Covid-19 (locally referred to as Corona Virus) was unknown to them.

What went wrong?

In March, the reality of the virus started to hit many Africa nations and it was in the same month when Kenya reported its first case. By the end of the same month many foreigners working in the country had been recalled by their organizations or mother nations and most operations were disrupted. The government was forced to progressively issue strict measures to curb the spread of the virus; these included closure of all schools and places of worship, suspension of all international flights effective at midnight on 25 March with the exception of cargo flights and later suspension of local flights. A 7pm – 5am curfew was announced from 27th March with timelines later adjusted to 9pm – 4am. As cases rose, the government announced a cessation of movement in and out of The Nairobi Metropolitan Area as well as the counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale. What perhaps was the lowest point for the ASM operators was when all the ASM operations were suspended countywide together with all non-essential operations and services.

What did this mean for ASM sector?

In a span of a month, the ASM operations slowed down and were temporarily suspended, leaving the ASM operators with no source of livelihood. Most ASM operators live on daily wages from their work and do not have alternative sources of income. According to them suspending the operations (though enforced with good intentions) meant bringing their lives to a standstill. For several weeks when the ASM operations were suspended, the local ASM operators concentrated on doing household and other lower-paying jobs while most non-locals (miners, traders and sponsors/financiers) left the mine sites to go to their respective counties/countries. After considering the outcry from ASM communities, the government issued work resumption guidelines for their operations; news that offered a sigh of relief to the miners.

The ASM operators were supposed to ensure the presence of hand-washing facilities at every mine site and that facemasks were worn by everyone at all times. To avoid overcrowding and ensure social distancing, the number of operators per mine site was reduced to a maximum of 15 people. Health officials and local administration moved around the mine sites educating miners about the pandemic and ensuring compliance with the issued guidelines. Operators from both gold and gemstones ASM were reported to be following the issued health guidelines to their level best. However, most operators have a challenge in purchasing new facemasks and end up overusing them. Cases of water shortage were also reported among the gemstone miners, which is a big challenge towards ensuring the hand-washing guideline.

Impacts on Artisanal Gold Operations in Kakamega

The restricted number of workers per site rendered many men and women jobless with the most affected group being women who work on ore crushing, processing and food vending around the mine sites. Others were forced to work on shifts or operate at less productive mine sites. When not working, some men are involved in farming and bodaboda (motorbike) riding business while women were involved in farming and other household jobs. The number of ASM operators in the mining sites gradually began to rise in the month of June although non-locals had not travelled back to Kakamega due to travel restrictions. The non-locals are mainly diggers, financiers and service providers (who drain flooded mines and repair equipment like pumps and crushers) and their absence directly affects levels of production. Production in the mines was also largely affected by floods caused by heavy rains as most operators who work on river banks were forced to shift either to other sites or to alternative jobs while mining in some pits was halted. The 9pm-4am curfew reduced the number of working hours in mines that formerly operated for 24 hours. All the negative effects to levels of production translated to low income.

Purchasing power for food and other basic needs quickly decreased as ASM operators largely used their savings to provide food for their families especially when operations were stopped. Human security initially decreased (mainly due to lack of employment and income), but since resumption of ASM activities (in early May 2020)] the situation is said to have stabilized. Low gold prices were reported from late March to early June as available buyers claimed to have no access to international markets to sell their stocks. However, in the month of June, the gold prices rose from an average of Ksh. 2,300 – 3,000 ($ 21.08 – 27.5) per gram to Ksh. 3,500 – 4,500 ($ 32.01 – 41.24). The sudden rise in gold price can be partly attributed to increased number of buyers at the mine sites which increased competition for less available gold and naturally, the spectacular rise in the international gold price since the onset of the pandemic.1

Financing remained a major challenge for ASM operators, especially in flooded mines where water pumps were needed. Miners requested assistance in underground hard rock mining where hand-tools are unable to work efficiently. ASM operators believed that formalization of their operations should be quickened in order to get legal recognition. An urgent need for more recognition and support of ASM operations by the government, financial institutions and others stakeholders in the mining industry was stressed by miners; especially in the issuance of donor funding, capacity building trainings, loans and other financial products. Support in acquiring mining tools and equipment as well as personal safety gears was proposed. ASM operators also requested for help in registering mining saccos/cooperatives and guidance in alternative investments.

Impacts on Artisanal Gemstones Operations in Taita Taveta

The Kenyan gemstone sector has literally been brought to its knees. The high hopes for a good business year in 2020 were crushed in mid-March as most gemstone buyers left the country in fear of increased spread of Covid-19 infections. The gemstone market slowly faded away as local buyers who had been stockpiling quality gems lost the financial strength to sustain the supply from the mines. This forced ASM operators reliant on gemstones as their primary source of livelihood to lower the prices at mine-site level with the hope of attracting any available buyers. Most mine-site level operators were left without a source of livelihood when ASM operations were temporarily suspended and anyone who had reserved/stockpiled gemstones was forced to sell at extremely low prices to obtain cash for daily household use. The local buyers and traders who had stockpiled large quantities of gemstones with aim of either exporting or selling to international dealers in major towns were forced to sell at zero profit (and in some cases at a loss) to fellow buyers.

Tourmaline artisanal mining site in Taita Taveta County
Photo courtesy Peter Munyi

Even with opening of the ASM operations (in early May 2020), the prices had not improved since international flights remained suspended thus traders could not access international markets and international buyers (who tend to pay the best prices) were unable to travel back. Financing of ASM operations stopped in most mines due lack of markets which made the operations unsustainable. Tourmaline that used to go for Ksh. 35,000 – 50, 000 ($ 320.73 – 458.16) per kilogram was being bought for Ksh. 3000 – 10,000 ($ 27.5 – 91.64) per kilogram. Green garnet prices were similarly affected with pieces that would normally go for Ksh. 70,000 – 80, 000 ($ 641.46 – 733.1) per gram being bought for Ksh. 10,000 – 25,000 ($ 91.64 – 229.1) per gram (depending on shape, size and clarity).

By 1st July 2020, a number of mines had not been reopened and non-local financiers had not resumed. For the operating mines, the number of operators allowed per time was significantly reduced to comply with the social-distancing guideline. The number of working hours was also reduced by almost half, due to the ongoing 9pm-4am curfew. All these issues led to low production and hence low income, reducing purchasing power and causing severe food insecurity among artisanal gemstone communities. Food security has further been compounded by low rainfall over the last planting season in Taita Taveta, which minimized farm produce.

In terms of health, although no Covid-19 case were reported in the mining areas, the proximity of the area to border town of Taveta (bordering Tanzania) and the administrative/trading town of Mwatate caused fear of spread of infection in the mining areas. The ASM operators were reported to comply with health guidelines although severe water shortage in mining areas caused the biggest challenge to the exercise. Other challenges included lack of facemasks and sanitizers.

Most women mine tourmaline since it’s found on loose material and near the surface therefore does not require machinery or blasting. However, the price for tourmaline has significantly dropped and in most cases, only high-quality green tourmaline was marketable at very low prices (prices indicated above). The limited financial return has been pushing most women out of the mine sites. Women had an added task of taking care of children (who are not going to school at the moment) which slowed down their productivity. The community was in urgent need of relief food and clean water. They also needed support in getting sanitizers, soaps and facemasks as well as support in financing to restart their operations.

1 On 7 August 2020, the international gold price was 66.22 USD/gram. https://goldprice.org/

Article Kenya Gold, Gemstones COVID-19

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