Kenya: Exploited Soapstone Carvers of Kisii Cry Out for Help

27 October 2020

For years, most soapstone carvers in Tabaka in South Mugirango constituency, Kisii County, have lived in abject poverty, despite the abundance of a natural resource which people the world over consider a gem.

Exploited by middlemen and hit hard by failing international markets for their products, the stone carvers of Kisii are a frustrated lot.

The carvers endure hardship to mine, carve, and clean to the final detail before seeking a dwindling market for their sculptures.

Frustrated stone carvers narrated tales of exploitation as they struggle to eke out a living.

They struggle in the quarries mining the white stone before a backbreaking process of preparing the carvings that sell at throw-away prices. The carvers say they have had it all.

The worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of international markets has compounded an already bad situation.

Despite the industry being hard hit by the pandemic, the soapstone carvers have had little financial relief either from the national or county governments.

Last year, Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes promised to help the soapstone carvers by installing a processing industry and enhance the international market for the products, but that was just that - a promise.

Middlemen, some of them politicians, have monopolised the market, making it difficult for new entrants without strong connections and financial muscle to survive in the market.

The rich divert tourists to their shops which are strategically located on the main road in Tabaka town, which connects to the international road that leads to Tanzania and Southern Africa.

Economic base

Residents told the Nation in Tabaka -- a robust small town with booming businesses -- that political forces on the strategic Kisii-Tanzania highway convince the tourists that Tabaka is insecure so they should not go where the miners are.

"We spend considerable time and resources but we have no market here," said a local carver.

The government, he said, can create a strategic market for the carvers to improve their economic base.

Since the carvers have had to face all manner of exploitation, the government plans to intervene and streamline marketing of the products.

The recently-released Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report calls for policies that impact on the environment, natural resources and biological diversity, particularly those that guide economic development.

The report discusses, in great detail, initiatives that promote sustainable utilisation and management of these resources.

After receiving the report at the Kisii State Lodge, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his "handshake" partner Raila Odinga spoke extensively about how those in the soapstone industry will benefit from the implementation of the report.

They said the national and county governments will team up to ensure that proper marketing, pricing and general business conduct in the industry favour the locals.

This, they said, will apply to all other resources in the country.

The BBI report states that there is a need to have a productive economy and shared prosperity where every facet of policy must further the creation and sustenance of an eco-social market economy.

"Policymakers should design and deploy policies that incentivise value addition, involve stakeholder consultation and consideration, lead to the creation of decent jobs, protect labour rights and conserve nature," the BBI report says.

At Smolart (Small, Medium, Or, Large Art) self-help group in Tabaka, carvers believe the future is promising and hope for better returns after implementation of the report.

Mr Moses Ong'esa, who is the group's chairman, believes that the new policies from BBI will lock out middlemen, who have been the biggest stumbling block in the trade.

Mr Ong'esa says brokers have ruined prices and dictate how much they want to pay for finished products.

"Value-addition of the natural stone is expensive. But some people just want to buy at throw-away prices. They dictate the prices," said Mr Ong'esa.

Mr Cosmas Onchoba, a quarry owner, says Ugandans have taken over the market, given that they come with lorries to buy the stones, go process them in their country, add value and then sell back to Kenyans.

"They add value to our stones, make chalk and ceramics, then return to sell their finished products to us," Mr Onchoba complained.

Fast-track their promise

The miners are now calling on the county and national governments to fast-track their promise of starting a soapstone factory.

"This will help bring sanity here. It will help us get value for our products and middlemen will have no room to exploit us," said Mr Onchoba.

Mr Charles Oronyi says the county must come up with a plan to help residents.

"Kisii is the only place in Africa where soapstone is found. Unfortunately, locals are not benefitting," said Mr Oronyi, a miner and resident at Tabaka.

Mr Reuben Nyamao, a soapstone miner and carver, says they buy the stones from farm owners and fork out about Sh1,000 for a 400kg weight.

"We then pay about Sh400 to transport to our working site," said Mr Nyamao.

He says the soapstone business was once lucrative, but middlemen and politicians have spoilt everything.

He says he has tried marketing his products through the internet but still there is no breakthrough as cartels in the industry have taken over.

Mr Munyes, in his visit to the region last year, said he was aware that small miners have not been gaining from their sweat.

"The way they do their mining is also risky besides them having no proper tools to do this. With the factory in place, there will be order," said Mr Munyes at Nyabigena site.

The CS said that through the factory, locals will have an organised way to export and sell value-added products.

Kisii county government recently sponsored a Bill to protect soapstone miners and carvers.

The Bill is aimed at helping in standardising prices so that brokers do not buy carvings at throw-away prices.

Governor Ongwae lamented that soapstone carvings have put Kisii on the world map yet people working in the industry had not benefited much.

The Bill, he said, would lock out middlemen by ensuring carvers and miners benefit directly from their work.

"We will not allow outsiders to buy our carvings at throw-away prices, export them and earn millions when locals continue to languish in poverty," he said.

The county intends to use co-operative societies to market soapstone products in and outside the country.

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