Why Kakamega gold refinery will be a game changer for small-scale miners

Ikolomani Gold Refinery

Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya (centre) and Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes (left) when they toured the proposed site for the upcoming Ikolomani Gold Refinery on
July 26 2021.

Photo credit: Isaac Wale | Nation Media Group

The upcoming Ikolomani Gold Refinery, expected to be launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kakamega County during his anticipated visit to Western Kenya, is seen as a game changer for artisanal miners in the region who are exploited by middlemen in the torturous small-scale gold prospecting business.

The project, estimated to cost Sh100 million, features prominently on President Kenyatta’s itinerary during which he is expected to commission several development projects.

Governor Wycliffe Oparanya has confirmed that the President will commission the construction of the refinery, which targets artisanal miners.

Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes said the miners will be allowed to deliver their gold directly to the refinery, adding that the process will meet international standards.

Once completed, it is projected to eliminate the black market that middlemen use to exploit local miners by offering lower prices for their gold.

Title deed

The county government handed over the title deed to a 10-acre parcel of land in Lidambidza, Idakho East ward, Ikolomani sub-county for the project.

Governor Oparanya issued the document to the Mining CS in a brief ceremony at the Iguhu grounds in the sub-county last Monday.

Mr Oparanya said the MoU between the county and the ministry outlines how the devolved unit, the national government and the local community will benefit from the project.

“The aim of this project is to improve the livelihoods of the community, uplift the regional economy and create direct and indirect jobs for wealth creation,” he said.

The national government has provided Sh50 million to support the project.

Consultants interested in the tender are expected to review the information regarding the location of minerals, the level of production, the kind of trade and the use of gold in the region.

River Yala youth group

Youths digging soil to extract gold in Isulu, Ikolomani in Kakamega County.

Photo credit: Isaac Wale | Nation Media Group

Production potential

They are expected to analyse production potential plus the commercial, economic and social viability of the expected refinery.

“Potential consultants have until November 8 to express their interest. Successful consultants will be given 90 days to finish the study and deliver the report,” Mr Oparanya said.

The refinery is expected to open up skilled mining for locals who have been dying in mining tunnels due to lack of proper mining techniques.

Statistics from the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining indicate that at least two gold miners die in the mines every month in Kakamega and Vihiga counties.

The ministry also indicates that five miners in Kakamega and one in Vihiga lost their lives in the tunnels in May alone.

The figures could be higher as some miners who work without permission fail to report deaths, fearing that the authorities might follow up on them and shut down their mines.

Artisanal miners with a spotlight perched on their foreheads use a rope to swing into the mine shafts that could be as deep as 200 feet.

Only source of income

While some have failed to come out of the pits alive, this has not deterred others who rely on gold mining as the only source of income for their families.

Amateur miners enter pits several times and make out with soil that they process to extract gold for sale.

The allure of quick money compels them to sell a gram of gold for between Sh4,700 and Sh5,000 to middlemen, who later sell to actual buyers at exaggerated prices.

Western region mining officer Samuel Too said the region has about 8,000 miners, with the majority of them working as casual labourers in the informal sector.

“Most of the miners are jobless youth who engage in the mining venture without modern mining tools,” he said.

Some of the miners have organised themselves into self-help groups. Kakamega Artisan Gold Miners Association chairman Timothy Muteshi said there are about 172 mining groups in the county.

Employment opportunities

Governor Oparanya said the refinery will offer employment opportunities to hundreds of youth exploited by cartels, who benefit from their sweat.

“The national government has identified an investor who will put up a large mining factory here at Ikolomani. This will offer employment opportunities to the youth. The artisan miners will also learn modern skills from the established miners who are coming,” he said.

Once President Kenyatta commissions construction of the refinery, he said, work will begin immediately and is expected to be completed and become operational one year and half later.

Mr Munyes said the factory will offer a bigger earning potential for small-scale miners in Kakamega.

“In the next few months, we shall witness a beehive of activities in Kakamega and many people will benefit from the gold refinery. Amateur miners will now upscale their techniques from the established operators,” he said.

The government, he said, is targeting a 10 per cent share in Vision 2030 through value addition, implementation of mining and minerals policy and the Mining Act, 2016.

He said 30 percent of proceeds from the refinery will go to the county government.