What you need to know:
- The village of Kiangunguru sits on top of large deposits of the rare mineral, which is used to make electric car batteries, mobile phones and other electronic devices.
- Due to the poor infrastructure and rough terrain, vehicles are rarely seen in the village, which recently hit the headlines following the discovery of coltan.
When Mines and Blue Economy Cabinet Secretary Salim Mvurya announced two weeks ago that precious coltan ore had been discovered in a village in Embu County, it took many locals by surprise.
This was despite artisanal miners in Kiambere Ward mining the rare mineral for decades, along with eight other precious minerals. The biggest shocker: they had no idea how valuable coltan was.
Coltan, which is in high demand worldwide, is used in the manufacture of electronic products, the two most important being mobile phones and laptops.
After a torturous two-hour drive from Embu town, a Catholic Church sign posted on a tree welcomes us to Kiangunguru village, which borders Ntharawe.
Here we found some sites where young men were crushing rocks in search of tantalite ore or coltan. The young men first look for mica and other minerals in the hills in Kiambere before concentrating on coltan, which they crush manually, sort and clean for sale.
The village of Kiangunguru sits on top of large deposits of the rare mineral, which is used to make electric car batteries, mobile phones and other electronic devices.
But the majority of the 21,000 people who live in Kiambere, the second largest ward in the region after Evurore, go about their business oblivious to the fact that the area is endowed with such a vital mineral, in high demand on the international market and with the potential to transform their lives.
Others are busy tending to their farms, tending to maize and beans that seem to be wilting because of the lack of rain, unaware that they have valuable stones under the ground.
Those interviewed said they had become accustomed to the sound of machines breaking rocks in search of the rare minerals, with dozens of young people working from dawn to dusk at the mining sites.
The area is 20 kilometres from Kiritiri town, the headquarters of Mbeere South Sub-county. Its rugged terrain and monotonous rocky hills make it stand out. The village appears abandoned due to poor infrastructure.
The Ntharawe road leading to the 'coltan' village, as it is now called after CS Mvurya's announcement, is in bad shape. It is dusty and rocky, with gullies created by the El Niño rains in some sections, and little activity takes place on it.
Motorists going to the village go through hell because of the road's poor condition. The Nation saw only one car using the road on our way to and from the village, with boda boda operators complaining about the high cost of maintaining their motorcycles due to the deplorable state of the road.
The entire village has no electricity except for Ntharawe Primary School and Ntharawe Secondary School.
Clean piped water remains a dream as residents are forced to travel long distances in search of this essential commodity, especially during the dry season. Residents said they leave home in the morning to search for water and return in the evening.
"The village has been abandoned despite having vital resources. Water is a big problem. We only have one borehole, which was dug through my initiative but it can only serve 300 people. Homesteads are always in the dark because residents are yet to access power," said area MCA Lenny Masters Mwaniki.
In the sprawling village, most residents live in mud houses, some of which are dilapidated. The churches are also in a deplorable state. Residents look miserable as they go about their business under the scorching sun.
Due to the poor infrastructure and rough terrain, vehicles are rarely seen in the village, which recently hit the headlines following the discovery of coltan. But locals say that since Mvurya's convoy snaked into the village to inspect the mineral-rich sites, "we have started receiving many visitors".
The small markets are not teeming with customers, a clear sign of the poverty among the residents. Residents say they rely on the booming town of Kiritiri for supplies. Kiritiri is home to most of the brokers who deal in minerals, including foreigners.
"We have no big businesses because the trade in coltan is not done here. The merchants smuggle it out immediately; it is dug up and [it is] sold elsewhere, and therefore the money fetched benefits foreigners," said Harrison Kiura, a miner.
MCA Mwaniki lamented that it was a shame that residents were living a dog's life while foreigners mining their coltan were living large.
He said what was happening in the area was unacceptable and that the situation required urgent intervention.
Mwaniki said the village is an arid area and had not received any compensation. "This is a village which is very important to the county and the nation at large, but it is marginalised," the MCA said.
In terms of health, the residents suffer because the Kiritiri Sub-county Hospital is far away from them. The hospital is about 20 kilometres away, and residents have been unable to travel there for treatment due to bad roads and economic hardship.
Residents say they rely more on medicinal herbs when they fall ill. Educational facilities in the village are poorly equipped.
"Schools in this place don't have adequate classrooms and they should be expanded. Normally, classrooms are overcrowded and this makes our children uncomfortable," said Mwaniki.
Residents are wallowing in abject poverty despite having the mineral which, if properly exploited, can improve their livelihoods.
"Even after having immense mineral wealth, we live from hand to mouth. We don't have enough to eat while the area has remained underdeveloped. No one cares about us," said 70-year-old Janet Muthoni.
Muthoni has lived in the village for 15 years but says nothing much has changed even after the discovery of coltan.
“Roads around our village have been impassable over the years and we are still trekking long distances to fetch water from the Thura seasonal river. Sometimes we find the river dry and return home without water yet the area boasts of having coltan," she said.
Miner Fredrick Kivuti has been digging for precious stones for five years. His late father introduced him to the work, but he was unaware of the value of coltan until recently when government officials, led by CS Mvurya, visited the area and explained it to him.
"I didn't know that coltan was so valuable but now I know what it does," he said as he showed the Nation samples of the mineral at a mining site.
Kivuti said it was sad that investors had been enriching themselves all these years while continuing to exploit the locals.
Another miner, Harrison Kiura, has been working at the mine for a year but had no idea what coltan was used for.
"Me and my colleagues have been mining coltan and handing it to our bosses. Initially, we thought it is used to manufacture bullets but we were wrong," he said.
He said the government should now step in and ensure that the mineral brings development to the village and improves their lives.
"We want roads to be improved and to be provided with machines to mine coltan. We were not aware of the importance of coltan, but now we know and we can make a killing from it," Kivuti said.
Mining has been going on in this sleepy village for more than a decade, but the residents are not benefiting much from the mineral.
Private investors and tycoons, some from as far away as Rwanda, who have invaded the area, have made the most of the lucrative business.
Local people are usually hired as casual labourers to mine coltan and other ores, earning between Sh500 and Sh1,000 a day.
"Coltan was discovered in the 1950s, but we didn't value it. We discovered its importance when Rwandese brokers arrived and started buying it from us cheaply. After buying, the Rwandese would leave with the mineral without telling us what it was used for," said another resident.
Coltan has different colours, ranging from blue, yellow, green, red and black. Blue, green and black coltan are of high quality.
"Blue, green and black coltan are in high demand; mineral merchants scramble for it," said Kiura.
“Sometimes we work just for a few hours before finding coltan but other times we take months. The biggest size I have extracted is five kilogrammes.”
Winfred Mutinda, a kiosk owner, added that locals have been selling a kilogramme of coltan at between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 “because we didn’t know its value.”
“We had no choice,” she said, adding: “We now want help to benefit from it and improve our lives.”
According to artisanal miners, one gram of coltan sells for Sh200.
Raymond Kinyua, the County Lands and Mining Executive, admitted that the area was lagging in terms of infrastructure development, but added that the national government and the county were working to reverse the situation.
"The Ntharawe road is in a pathetic condition but we expect the national government to come in and improve the infrastructure. We shall collaborate with the national government to make the area better. Mining is being given a lot of consideration in the budget allocation and, in three months, the infrastructure will have been improved," he said.
Kinyua said the area had huge potential for coltan and other minerals, and would see heavy investment.
The national government first discovered the coltan deposits in the village in 2020 when it carried out an aerial survey, but only made the announcement last week.
Before the announcement, illegal mining had been taking place at the site, with coltan being sold on the black market.
The government now wants to legalise mining to ensure that local people benefit.
Kinyua revealed that 23 experts from the Ministry of Mines are on the ground carrying out a verification exercise before mining is legally allowed.
He said the land where the coltan was found is in Embu County and the region will benefit from 20 per cent of the proceeds while the locals will get 10 per cent.
He encouraged artisanal miners to form cooperatives to be allowed to mine and benefit from coltan extraction.
In addition to coltan, other minerals such as cerium, lanthanum, mica, uranium and aquamarine have been discovered in the same village.
The County Mining Officer, Peter Njagi, noted that the announcement of the discovery of coltan was a game-changer and that the news would spread like wildfire. Many illegal miners might invade the area, he warned.
"If proper exploration is done, even more valuable minerals will be found and mining will overtake agriculture, which is currently the mainstay of the residents," Njagi said.
"The area will be opened to the entire world following the discovery of coltan and other minerals, and the residents will have money which will make their lives better. For residents to benefit, we have to eradicate brokers who have been exploiting them.”
Local people will be trained by cooperatives to identify valuable minerals and will be offered mining equipment.
In addition, foreign miners will be required to declare the amount of minerals they have extracted and to state they are from Embu.
"We are happy because we have a valuable mineral in our county. We have nine types of minerals in Embu, which have not been properly exploited. The county has enormous mineral wealth and proper strategies should be put in place to ensure that the locals benefit," said Kanyi Maina, an official of the Embu branch of the Kenya National Chambers of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI).
He suggested that some of the proceeds of the minerals be used to improve roads and schools and provide water to the residents.
Maina called on the county government to hold an investors' conference to showcase the region's mineral wealth.
Governor Cecily Mbarire said national government officials are working to discover more minerals in the region.
"A team of 23 experts from the State Department of Mining has been sent to the area to carry out ground truthing at the site, which has now become a centre of attraction for both locals and investors," she said.
The officers are assessing the quantity and quality of the mineral in the area.
The ground truthing exercise, which is expected to take a month, will inform investment decisions.
Following the discovery, residents are flocking to the area to get a glimpse of the precious metal deposits.
"I have been seeing this mineral but I thought it was not of much benefit. However, a handful of enlightened colleagues used to dig it up using tools such as three-pronged forks. They would then sell it in small quantities in the black market," one of the residents said.
Boda boda riders and residents are optimistic that more jobs will be created for them if mining is streamlined.
"Now that the government has shown interest in mining in this village we expect to have jobs to eke out a decent living," said rider Peter Fundi, adding that the minerals will also create more jobs for the youth.
According to CS Mvurya, adequate deposits have been discovered in Embu. The minerals have also been discovered in Turkana, West Pokot, Samburu and Tana River counties.
Mbeere South MP Nebart Muriuki advised residents to stop selling their parcels of land at throwaway prices.
"A precious mineral has been found here and if you want to benefit you should not sell your land," he said.
The Democratic Republic of Congo holds more than 70 per cent of the world’s coltan reserves, which have for decades fuelled violent conflicts in the east of the country.
Rwanda is also a large producer of coltan. It is, however, not clear how much coltan is found in Kenya.
Coltan is often refined into metallic tantalum used to manufacture electronic devices. On average, a kilogramme of the rare ore fetches $48, according to Forbes.