Residents of Kwale dirt poor in spite of the mineral billions underground

Base Titanium

Operations at the Base Titanium mine in Kwale County on June 29.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

It was one of the most dramatic starts to any Formula 1 race. Even before the first corner of the British Grand Prix at the iconic Silverstone circuit, Pierre Gasly in an Alpha Tauri and George Russel in a Mercedes made contact.

The former lost control and hit Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo, the impact launching Zhou’s car into the air. It landed upside down and skidded across the track with the drivers helmet almost touching the tarmac.

It then hit and bounced over the tyre barrier, and came to a rest wedged in a small gap between the fence and tyre barrier.

Zhou was extracted from his Alfa Romeo and stretchered to an ambulance that sped him to the Silverstone medical centre.

A medical examination showed that he suffered barely a scratch and, once given the all-clear, he tweeted: “Halo saved me today”.

Once again, the Halo head protection device introduced just in 2018 had saved the life of a Formula 1 driver.

The wishbone-shaped piece of metal mounted on the top of the racing car in front of the driver’s head is essentially designed to shield drivers from flying debris and also offer protection when the car over-turns.

It complements the roll hoop a protrusion from the chassis behind the driver’s head designed to support the weight of the car when it overturn and therefore protect the drivers head.

Kwale Titanium

A worker at a Base Titanium Mining site in Kwale. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Both the halo and the roll hoop are made of titanium, one of the strongest metals on earth. It’s light, with the highest known strength to weight density ratio.

Titanium is used extensively in the manufacture of spaceships, but also has a wide variety uses in anything from designer sunglasses, golf clubs and industrial applications.

Tsavo elephants

The F1 halo, weighing just nine kilogrammes, is reputedly strong enough hold the weight of two full-grown Tsavo elephants, yet sturdy enough to deflect a formula 1 tire smashing into it at an impact of 225 kilometres per hour.

In the case of Zhou’s crash, the roll hoop snapped off from initial impact with the ground, but the halo, which is designed to stop flying debris rather than hold up the weight of the car, held firm and protected the driver’s head from scraping across the tarmac.

Titanium saved the day, and it so happens that Kenya is the world’s eleventh largest producer of the metal, with the entire annual production of 160,000 metric tonnes mined in Kwale County on just 4,000 acres extracted by Australian company Base Titanium. The county on Kenya’s southern coast should probably be mining El Dorado, but a visit shows very little evidence that riches from titanium mining have impacted meaningfully on the Kwale economy.

Now that the titanium is running out, with the last of three dunes exploited over the last twenty years set to be exhausted.

Kwale County, on the southern coast of the country, is rich in cultural diversity. Its economy is reliant on agriculture, tourism and mining. According to the latest data from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, there are 328,253 registered voters in the cosmopolitan county which has Ukunda, Kwale and Diani as its urban areas.

Base Titanium mine

Mining at the Base Titanium site in Kwale County in this photo taken on February 25, 2019.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In 2017, Diani beach was voted the seventh best in Africa by an American travel website, TripAdvisor. Although the main economic activity revolves around tourism, over the past ten years mining has taken centre stage with a possibility of it being the dominant economic activity for the county.

Mining activities have raised the county’s profile as one of the mineral rich areas with the potential of being the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner overtaking tea and coffee exports and the tourism sector.

However, there has been under exploration of minerals in Kwale County, which has further been complicated by the recent decision by the government to cancel mining licences issued to some companies.

Mineral producers

Some of the minerals found in the county include titanium, niobium and rare earth minerals, which have raised the county’s and country’s profile as mineral producers.

At the centre of mining activities in the county is Base Titanium, a subsidiary of Australian company Base Resources. Base Titanium, which is one of the largest mining companies in the country, mines titanium. The metal is found in Nguluku and Maumba. The company started operations in Kenya in 2013.

Titanium consists of three products — rutile, ilmenite and zircon — which are separated upon extraction.

They are then exported to other countries to be used for processing of specific products such as paints, jewellery and materials used in aircraft and motor vehicle engineering technology.

Geologists classify Titanium as the ninth most abundant element in the earth’s crust.

Mining operations by the company has been classified as a Vision 2030 flagship project.

According to the company, it has invested $350 million (Sh41.2 billion) in the Kwale mining operations with $100 million (Sh11 billion) spent on contractors’ equipment and employment during the construction phase.

In the 2021 financial year, Base Titanium generated earnings worth US$115.7 (Sh13.7 billion) million and accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s total mineral output value.

Kwale County also boasts of several rare earth minerals found around Mrima Hill which also has niobium deposits.

Cortec Mining had been granted a licence to mine the rare earth minerals and niobium but this was revoked by then Mining Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala in 2013 on grounds that it was irregularly issued.

Three and five per cent royalties were to be earned by the government from niobium and rare earth mining operations respectively in Kwale County.

Base Titanium External affairs Manager Melba Wasunna says the company completed its mining activities at central dune in 2019 and is currently mining on the south dune, operations which are likely to be completed by the end of next year.

Special lease

However, the company says that the mine is under a special mining lease which was extended until 2025.

“We got concessions to continue mining in June, legally until 2025,” says Dr Wasunna, adding that the company had applied for prospecting licenses but there is a moratorium issued by the government which is yet to be lifted.

She says that the firm is looking for opportunities to explore minerals in Kuranze in Kwale County and other areas in Lamu County and neighbouring Tanzania.

Dr Wasunna says the company has a post-mining land use committee, which will advise on how the land can be used whether for agriculture or commercial purposes.

On the issue of exporting the minerals without any value addition, Dr Wasunna says their expertise is on titanium extraction.

“There is a value chain, ours is extraction, people are welcome to take products and do business,” said Dr Wasunna adding that there is a local company buying some of their products.

Dr Wasunna, who is also the chairperson of Association of Women in Energy and Extractives in Kenya, said the company has been paying royalties to the government since 2016.

She further notes that, previously, there was no framework that had been set up by the government for sharing of royalties.

According to the company, four Tanzanian exploration licences have been granted and it is engaging with the Kenyan government to have the moratorium on the issuance of prospecting licences lifted. The company also says that its operations maintained production consistency throughout the first quarter of the year. It further notes that there is strong demand, which supported further price increases for all products.

The company uses open cast mining employing a hydraulic method (using water only) which, it says, is cost-effective and well suited for the mine.

In one of the mining fields a team of Nation journalists visited, the hydraulic mining involved blasting of the mining area directly with high pressure jets of water to create an ore slurry.

Compliance and Safety Superintendent Clapperton Ngome, during a tour of the mine, explained that there is no mechanised extraction and that only water is used in the process.

“The company adopted this type of mining as it is the most effective,” said Mr Ngome at the south dune where mining was taking place.

Mr Ngome further explained that the company had built a system of recycling water being used ensuring none went to waste the mining process.

The company also has its own dam within the mines as a reservoir, which it uses especially during dry season.

According to the company, after the creation of the ore slurry during mining, it is pumped to a wet concentrator plant where slime is removed before a number of gravity separation procedures sieve out most of the non-valuable, lighter gauge minerals to produce a heavy mineral concentrate.

The heavy mineral concentrate is then processed in the mineral separation plant, which cleans and separates the rutile, ilmenite and zircon minerals into finished products for sale.

Mr Ngome explains that the company is rehabilitating the land as they continue to mine, noting that the company extracts 10 centimetres of the top soil during the commencement of the mining process before returning it after completion.

“The top soil is actually where vegetation grows, thus it is removed before mining and once the mining is over, the land is rehabilitated and the soil is returned,” said Mr Ngome.

The company has put up nurseries for various crops such as onions, kales, cabbages, ginger and highland rice in a bid to show that the land is viable for agriculture contrary to various theories that after mining the land cannot be productive.

After mining operations, the land is expected to revert to government ownership, which will make a decision on how best to use it and Base Titanium says it has a post land use programme with its stakeholders.

The company usually takes its finished products for bulk shipment to its privately owned and operated Likoni port facility for export while its containerised shipments are exported through the port of Mombasa.

According to the company, it is seeking to extend the life of Kwale operations through its near mine and regional exploration programmes.

[email protected] TOMORROW:  Focus on Kwale County, where poverty is endemic despite its vast mineral wealth and having one of the largest mining companies in the country.