"You want to enter? Come, let's go in," the badgering voice of Abubakar Sadiq urged this reporter. "Just follow us, you don't need to be afraid. Come and see how we get this thing from under the ground," he added, now motioning the newcomer to the opening of the cave.
To an onlooker, the agitated Mr Sadiq is a miner who will dare all odds to enter the cave. But that was not the case in his first visit to the Tsani mine located in Kankara, Katsina State.
Mr Sadiq narrated how life began for him as a miner.
It was an early Sunday morning in 2011, a day with great hope for the then 23-year-old. He had approached a friend who agreed to introduce him to Kaolin clay mining in their home town, Kankara.
Mr Sadiq had arrived early with helpful gadgets and was in high spirit on the prospect of being initiated into the mining business. His excitement took another turn in a matter of seconds.
"When we wanted to enter, my friend assured me of my safety but I ran back when I entered the cave and saw how it was. It was dark, I was very afraid and had to leave. I couldn't work that day," he said balancing a glowing stick of cigarette on his lips as he made jest of his former self.
Mr Sadiq's fear is understandable. He had imagined the horror that would befall his family if the underground caved in. Hence, his decision to abscond. But all that is history now.
Mr Sadiq, now 31, is one of the most energetic of the about 150 miners in Tsani mine, in Kankara, Kankara Local Government of Katsina State.
He has become a local mining champion. He now mines an average of 10 to 12 bags which he sells for prices starting from N250.
Unlike Mr Sadiq, much to the surprise of other miners, this reporter obliged his goad and spent several hours traversing the world of the miners both on and underground.
It started on a prospective wet day on July 24. The clouds struggling to roll by, yet frowning at the rivalry of the determined sun. It is not good weather for the kaolin miners.
Kaolin, a mineral resource with an estimated three billion metric tonnes deposit in Nigeria is found in about 25 states and the Federal Capital Territory. It exists in commercial quantity in Adamawa, Borno, Abia, Delta, Ekiti, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Ogun, Ondo, Oyo, and Plateau states.
The clay, rich in kaolinite, can be used in producing many household and office utensils used in Nigeria - ceramics, porcelain, paper, rubber, paint, white incandescent light bulbs, facial masks, among many others.
A normal day at the Tsani mine starts as early as 7 a.m. with a couple of activities which, over time, have become monotonous. First, the miners have to buy batteries for the torches they need under the caves. Then they take their breakfast, as mining is not a task to be prosecuted with an empty stomach, before the compulsory early morning prayer. The three activities set their day in motion.
These formalities were boycotted by this reporter as he was hastily coddled into the cave after being offered a torch.
The underground of Tsani mine is one of the biggest in Kankara. Every day, the cave welcomes between 50 and 100 able-bodied young men, on two or three shifts per day.
Underground, there are different compartments for mining tools belonging to several miners and sacks used in transporting extractions to the surface.
The dark compartments, over 10 of them visited by this reporter, are manned by a good number of miners each day. This is where the real mining occurs. To traverse all these compartments, one would have made at least one and a half kilometres journey under the ground.
With their hoes, the miners till the wall of the cave to further elongate the distance of the cave while making paltry money in return.
The little they make come at very big risks. Apart from the near-death ventilation and poor lighting underground, a cave-in, which this reporter was told occurs often, could happen at any time.
However fearsome the dangers, miners of Tsani, all of whom had no formal education, work hours daily to eke out a living; a survival most times in the guise of living.
After a tour of the underground, this reporter returned on the ever-slippery surface of the cave's floor back to the surface. If he were to be a miner on duty, the journey may not have been that smooth.
After tilling the cave to extract the mineral, the miners still have to transport it to the surface. This is done in smaller sacks before final package into 25-kilogramme sacks.
The journey to the surface is the most tedious for the miners as they often falter under the weight of the clay while walking on the slippery surface. This also explains why all of them do not wear shoes.
Little money, many challenges
On July 23, a day before this reporter's visit, Ibrahim Gafar, one of the oldest miners in Tsani, mined 25 bags of kaolin and sold them all. It was an exceptional day as this does not often happen. They were sold at N300 each.
On this day, however, the 44-year-old who started mining 18 years ago, shortly after his marriage, was yet to mine one bag. He was on the second start-of-the-day routine as he munched a local dish while balancing himself on his bike; one of the gains of his sweat.
Mr Gafar said his buyers come from towns and cities like Lagos, Kankara, Katsina and Bauchi. He spoke of the challenges of mining.
"There is no formal market for us to sell. We are mining and the people selling it (middlemen agents) are the ones benefiting. Assuming this factory is working now, it would have been good to be supplying them," he said of an abandoned government-owned kaolin processing plant.
"Sometimes, we don't get people to buy. But thank God for these small fertiliser companies now. They are buying from us," he added.
Still in Tsani, at an opposite location, Aliyu Musa was preparing to go and deliver two bags of Kaolin to a fertiliser firm which had requested for it.
It is the rainy season and so most miners do not get to work as much as they wished. This reality made the prospect of the N500 earning he would get for the two bags more enticing.
"Our greatest challenge is that we don't have where to sell these things. Sometimes you mine and there is nobody to buy. Another one is the price. We do a lot of work and earn a little."
But how do these miners deal wicave-inve in, or a suspected one?
Ahmad Abubakar cannot remember the year he started mining but he is certain it has been at least 15 years.
"Once we see a crack or a cave in, we pray and leave that side. Anytime we see cracks, we will abandon that side and go to another. We have not recorded any casualty due to that as far as I know," he said.
Mr Abubakar said he digs between 10 and 15 bags per day. When they come in yellowish colour, he sells for N400, if it is pure white, the price goes as far as N500 to N1,000.
N40 per bag payment
Even though the government does not regulate their daily activities or provide facilities for their smooth operation, miners in Kankara are compelled to pay N40 on each bag of kaolin mined.
"We work here under a manager who collects N40 per bag and pays revenue to the government," Mr Abubakar said.
The manager was not on site on this day but his representative, Nafiu Rabiu, was on hand to answer questions from this reporter. The 18-year-old is the revenue officer for Tsani mine.
Mr Rabiu said he collects, on the average, N40 each on 150 bags every day but this could be as low as 20 bags on rainy days.
"I collect N40 per bag, remit it to the manager, who later does same to the local government," the teenager told this reporter.
To verify his claim, this reporter approached the Kankara Local Government Area chairman who referred him to Kabir Bako, the Director of Agric.
"Whatever is found under the ground is controlled by the Federal Government and not the local government. In my thinking, the money they are collecting is for the parking of vehicles that convey the mineral. This is my own assumption, probably that is the way it is," Mr Bako said when questioned about the payment.
With N40 off already, the miners make do with whatever is being paid for their output. Due to their numbers, they have little or no say in determining the prices of their bags of kaolin. Though it is a free market, the force of the demand renders that of supply non-existent in determining the equilibrium price.
Yakubu Ubale, a well-known kaolin buyer in Kankara, explained how the business works at the buyer's end.
"There are some companies that take supply. I get calls from different companies interested in the mineral. After such calls, I'll come here, use my money to buy it and supply. I'll get my money after transporting and selling. Like today now, I just came to survey. I need to supply a company in Kano 300 bags."
He told PREMIUM TIMES why it is difficult for buyers to purchase at higher prices.
"It (the price we offer) depends on the quality. We have up to four major kinds. The higher the quality, the higher the price. After buying, the lowest I sell is N300 and highest is N700.
"Sometimes it takes up to three months and we won't sell. Sometimes, I'll even take it to some companies without invitation. They buy sometimes and at other times they don't, I lose."
Mr Ubale's customers are majorly fertiliser, paint and ceramics companies. His major challenge is getting 'high-quality kaolin', which is most often sought after by his clients.
"Sometimes, I want pure white and they'll give me yellow. It was a big challenge for me and that's why I decided to be coming here to supervise them myself so they can get me what I want.
"Sometimes, they would have bagged it before you come here and you won't know exactly what is inside. There was a time I took a supply to a company, after they broke the bags open, they returned all my supply. It wasn't up to their standard."
Miners in Kankara operate in clusters. Each cluster annexes a location in which they forman association and operate daily. One of the clusters is located in Dan Marke area of the town.
As was the case in Tsani, this reporter was urged to enter the cave to see first-hand how the miners work. He obliged but the journey was soon cut short.
Unlike in Tsani, Dan Marke caves offer smaller path, darker underground and very low level of oxygen. Problems in Dan Marke are compounded by the fact that one has to travel at least 30 metres under the ground before having a feel of kaolin. The uppermost part of the soil is covered in mud.
Just about 15 metres into the cave, this reporter was having difficulty in breathing, hence, the need to retreat. Surprisingly, however, none of the diggers in Dan Marke saw this as a challenge.
Jamilu Musa grew up in the area, so, it was easy to venture into mining. Now an adult, he spends an average of five minutes to excavate the earth for a bag of kaolin.
"The major problem is cold in the rainy season and heat in the dry season. The worse of the two is heat. Sometimes we stop mining because of that. We also want the government to bring customer to us and provide machines for local processing," he said of their challenges.
In Dan Marke, Mr Musa is well experienced in spotting about-to-cave-in areas. He uses his skill to save himself and other colleagues from possible death.
"When it is about to cave in, you'll know. The hard surface starts by cracking before it caves in, once you see this, you'll leave that part to go to another area.
"For soft areas, a cave in starts with another sign. If you see some small sands coming down small small, you should leave fast, that place is about to cave. That's how we avoid being trapped."
Miners in Kankara operate with crude implements and little or no regulation from the federal government which reserves mining on its exclusive list.
Based on the provision of Section 44(3) of the 1999 Constitution, the ownership and control of all minerals in Nigeria is vested in the federal government, which is mandated to manage such natural resources in a manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.
Information on the website of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development indicates that the federal government currently issued mining licences to 46 operators across the country. Out of this number, seven were marked to operate in Katsina. None of the local miners in Kankara operates under any of these seven licensed companies.
Efforts by PREMIUM TIMES to make further enquiry were unsuccessful as the ministry was yet to be assigned a minister. Also, a letter seeking an interview with the Permanent Secretary of the ministry was yet to be replied as at the time of filing this report.
Moribund government plant
All of the miners who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES think their life would be better if the moribund Kankara Kaolin Processing Plant established in the late 90s is functioning.
The plant was the initiative of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) which later transferred the ownership to the Katsina State Government.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited on July 24, the plant, with visible shades of neglect, was under lock.
The security guard on shift, Musa Usman, said he has never witnessed the full operation of the plant since he took up his job. He was, however, optimistic work may start soon in the plant.
"Some Indians came last week to check the engines," he told this reporter.
Efforts by this newspaper to ascertain the status of revitalising the plant did not yield enough. When contacted, Abdu Labaran, spokesperson to Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State, directed all enquiries to the Ministry of Commerce.
The Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Muntari Danladi, declined comments, saying he was not authorised to talk to journalists.
Meanwhile, like the miners and other villagers, the Kankara monarchy is dissatisfied with the state of the plant.
The Sarkin Pauwan Katsina, Yusuf Lawal, assigned his aide, Nuhu Lawal, the Wakili Sarkin Pauwan District, to answer questions from PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Lawal, while bemoaning the current status, said the plant came to life in 1998 during the interim tenure of General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
"When it was opened, they employed people around but it was not more than one year that it stopped working.
"We have not benefitted anything from the existence of kaolin and even the company. The only benefit you can say of is from using your hand to mine kaolin," he said.
The monarchy wants the "government to repair the company so that they can employ the people."
Nigeria's kaolin idle
On Sunday, July 28, this reporter arrived early at Ibesse, a town in Ogun State and also the seat of the $1 billion Dangote cement plant. His arrival was with the intent of interacting with local kaolin miners in the area but he was quick to realise that activities around the mineral are almost non-existent in Ibesse.
Locals from whom information was sought either said they had never heard about the mineral before or that Dangote owns all extractive resources in the area.
"Nobody knows about this kaolin and even if they do, a large portion of the land in this area belongs to Dangote. You dare not go near his property," this reporter's guide, Yinka, declared.
Bent on unravelling the reason behind the non-extraction, this reporter journeyed on foot the about two kilometres muddy road leading to Dangote mine. Here, he met one of the factory's engineers who explained why kaolin was not yet being harnessed.
"For now, we are not using kaolin, we use shale. The lime saturated factor is high and that is why we use something to suppress it. In this case, we use shale. Assuming we decide to use kaolin, it would have served the same purpose," the engineer who asked not to be named said.
The situation in Ogun exists in most other states where kaolin is found.
According to state disaggregated mining and quarrying data sourced from the National Bureau of Statistics, 24,104 tonnes of Kaolin was produced in 2016.
The report notes that Plateau State produced 160 tonnes, Bauchi 667 tonnes, Katsina 480 tonnes and Ogun 22,000 tonnes. There was no figure quoted for other states.
Perhaps, the NBS is oblivious of the activities of Kankara artisanal miners or failed to admit it as official figures as it would only take miners in Tsani alone 120 days of 160 bags per day to get the 480 tonnes quoted.
In an interview with Leadership in 2018, the Director-General of RMRDC, Hussaini Ibrahim, said the annual national demand for kaolin had been estimated at over 360,000 tonnes while local production was only about 125,000 tonnes, leaving a gap of about 235,000 tonnes, an indication of the underutilisation of this natural resource locally.
Mr Ibrahim said further that the pharmaceutical sub-sector alone has a national demand of 128.8 metric tonnes while current supply to the sub-sector is only about 33.3 metric tonnes per annum, leaving the nation with no option but to resort to importation to bridge the gap, leading to capital flight
"In recent times, however, the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries in Nigeria have shown apathy for local kaolin in the formulation of their products. The inability of the locally sourced kaolin to meet the quality specification of cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries has resulted in the importation of a large quantity of processed kaolin on an annual basis," he said.
How Nigeria can effectively harness kaolin - Experts
Sam Adefila, a professor of Chemical Engineering, said the technological gap that exists in mining and processing impedes local production and demand for kaolin.
Mr Adefila, the inaugural chairman of Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) at the Ahmadu Bello University, wants the private sector to key into the industry to boost production.
"The major thing is that we've not been able to process the local ones we have to specification which the market will buy immediately. The market is really there but technology to produce to specification is not there.
"The missing link is either to link up with entrepreneurs to support. If they are not forthcoming the government should come in," he said.
While identifying similar challenges of technological deficiency and lack of interest by the government, Olusegun Ajayi, a chemical engineering professor, noted that very few researches in the extraction industry area are being appreciated by the Nigerian government.
He said he was optimistic of a positive change if the government deregulates the mining sector.
"The annual report of NEITI on solid mineral puts the revenue we can generate from our solid mineral as at 2013 at N33.8 billion. By 2014, it went up N55.82 billion, this accounted for 0.11 per cent of our GDP. The figure went up, in 2015, to N69.2billion which amount to 0.33 per cent contribution to our GDP.
"We are not harnessing kaolin yet and we are reporting this value. If we now add kaolin to it and other minerals, you can imagine what it will be for our GDP.
"There is so much bottleneck that anybody that wants to get license will just be fed up. But if they deregulate and allow local and foreign investors, it will be very easy for us to expand.
"If we allow foreign investors to come in, it will assist us to expand capacity. They will develop and study our market system. We can also be trained by them," he said.