Impacts of COVID-19

Explore the profound effects of COVID-19 on artisanal mining communities in Kenya, as we delve into the disruptions to livelihoods, shifts in market dynamics, and the emergence of child labor. Gain insights into the challenges faced by miners in Taita Taveta, Kakamega, and Migori, and the ongoing efforts to address these pressing issues amidst the pandemic.

ASM settlement in Taita Taveta

COVID-19 & youth miners

Ordinarily, in Kakamega, 50 or more people would be working at a mine site, mostly made up of male youths. They were deemed to be strong enough to carry the ore in its raw form up to the surface. However, the pandemic limited this exercise to only 15 persons per shift, which is roughly only a day’s work. 

The limited number left the youth idle on other days, seeing them work once or twice a week so that others are not driven out of work. Given that the numbers have been limited at the mine site, miners in Taita-Taveta and Kakamega complained that limited production, which was also impacted by the curfews. 

For example in Kakamega, miners explained that the curfew meant that they could not mine at night as they used to before. This remained the same as of October 2021.

“Our lives have become so hard and hopeless sometimes and we have nowhere to turn. Who is there to help or even guide? No one cares about miners – not government, not NGOs, not even newspapers. They just talk about agriculture.

Evanson Mwakideu, 24

COVID-19 & Women

Conversations with miners in Kakamega and Migori indicated that women’s livelihoods have drastically been affected by the pandemic. Previously before the outbreak, women were involved in processing ore at the mines, where they would either break the larger pieces into smaller pieces and also end up using mercury to sift then amalgamate the gold as the final output.

The pandemic, therefore, reduced the overall number of miners at a  site, which also had its toll on the number of women who work there. In some instances, men would assert their authority and take over the jobs that were reserved for the women. This has led to a reduction in income as the new norm.

Before the pandemic, women would also supplement their mining activities by selling wares at mine sites such as food, utensils, second-hand clothes and other household items. With government directives with respect to intercounty movement during lock-down.  Additionally, the pandemic has also affected the spending decisions of the miners, having them hold back on purchasing non-essential items.

Other women used to sell foodstuffs such as maize, beans and Ugali at mine sites; they have also been affected by the pandemic. The reduction of numbers at the mine site has led to a reduction in income for the women feeding the miners. Some food items such as  maize and beans also become scarce.

The men at mining sites were involved in manual mining processes with simple tools without using mechanical energy or in some instances with little mechanical energy. Women were involved in the lighter tasks such as processing gold using mercury, sieving and sifting through the ore to obtain gemstones.

The absence of machinery relegated women to the less important roles at the mine site and is also a barrier for them owning such resources.

Impact of COVID-19 on children

Globally and in urban areas there has been a shift with respect to education from being present at school to online learning.  Online learning through Zoom, Google classroom and Cisco Webex has been successfully picked up in some places, with the government urging educational facilities to roll out online learning classes. There is a  large rural population that has been excluded from participating in distance learning,  these are the poor students who cannot afford the cost of access to digital platforms.  

COVID-19 has exposed the unequal socio-economic makeup of education in Kenya. In Western Kenya, due to the closure of schools, reduced numbers of miners at mine sites and an attractive price of gold presently,  miners ended up being accompanied to mine sites by their children. The children would have to engage in mining work to ensure that more gold was produced at the end of the day. Sources in Kakamega informed us that since the number of women at mine sites has also reduced and the workload on individual women miners has increased. 

There has also seen an introduction of child labour at the mine site, children are known to fit into small spaces deep down in the mines and are also assisting in the processing of ore for their families. The children engage in child labour at the mine site, the wages for the work done are earned by the mothers which feed the larger family setup, as they help their mothers process the ore faster. These children are also exposed to hazardous conditions, such as mercury fumes when they assist their parents to amalgamate the gold, where ordinarily this would have been carried out by several women. 

Child labour at the mine sites has been attributed to the lack of access to education, weak enforcement of labour laws, the lack of women’s empowerment,  poverty and insufficient social protection for the poor all exacerbated by the pandemic. It is anticipated that many cases remain unreported.

Not much had changed on this topic by October 2021.

Impact of COVID-19 on Commodity Prices

Globally COVID-19 has had a colossal impact on commodity prices in the extractives industry, with oil markets being the most affected by unprecedented trends such as sellers paying buyers to offtake their crude oil in order to mitigate their storage costs. Brent fell to USD 18 a barrel, the lowest price the market has seen in years. Over 80% of the global economy was on lockdown, with countries struggling to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

China, the world’s major commodity consumer, had its economy come to a halt which also contributed to the loss in commodity prices. The slowdown in worldwide travel left a significant proportion of the airline industry grounded and workforce slashed, reducing the demand for petroleum products. Metal prices fell far less than oil due to their indirect relationship with economic activity. Gold has historically been viewed as a haven in times of crisis from more traditional volatile investments like stocks, as it is less volatile than other asset classes. It is known to preserve wealth, its physical properties make it a reliable store of value, it is widely available to trade, finite in supply, is not corrosive and is rare enough to be considered valuable. Despite this, however, the price of gold has lost some ground in the global market. 

The gem and jewellery industry is heavily dependent on trade, there has been a severe fall in exports which has brought the industry to a standstill. Our interactions with ASMs informed us that since COVID-19 broke out, prices dropped significantly to an all-time low of Kshs 2,000 per gram of gold. Presently, however, gold is at an all-time high as indicated by the ASMs, it is retailing at Kshs 5,500/- per gram. 

Our observation with respect to the stark difference in the price change is this can be attributed to several factors.  The lockdown measures and curfews played a part, here there was a reduction in numbers at mining sites across the country, from 50-100 persons in a day to only 10-15 persons at a mine site. Miners would previously work for 24 hours in shifts, however, the introduction of the curfew measures reduced the productivity of mines, which in turn has reduced the supply of gold.  

Additionally, Western Kenya had recently experienced different weather conditions, with heavy rains, leading to flooding of mine shafts.The reduced personnel, coupled with the limited time due to the curfew made it difficult for miners to pump water out of their mine shafts and work at the optimal levels they were used to. The reduction in the supply of gold as a result of the aforementioned factors has increased the demand, resulting in the high prices currently being witnessed in Kakamega and Migori.

Mining activities in these counties are still going on, with no deaths reported or incurred as a result of COVID-19. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining has allowed all prospecting and mining activities to continue, however, they are to be conducted in accordance with guidelines and directives issued by the Ministry of Health and National Security Council and this has been the case at mine sites.

Miners in Kakamega, Migori and Taita-Taveta indicated that they had not received any donations of any kind from the government nor their elected leaders leading to some private companies providing food items and donations to miners during this period. In Kakamega, the sponsors  (these are private individuals who often tend to get into prospecting agreements with miners over their land as they fund the whole operation) have been seen to provide aid to the miners.

On the other hand, there has been a sharp decline in the prices of gemstones witnessed in Taita-Taveta. Previously a medium-sized ruby weighing between 1Kg and 5Kg  would fetch about Kshs 30,000 however,  presently the same ruby is now worth Kshs  10,000, large rubies worth 5kg and above would have pre-COVID-19 fetched a price of Kshs 120,000/-, however, the same is currently worth Kshs 50,000/- and below.  Red Garnets, Amethyst and Kyanite are sold seasonally and on a demand basis,  there is no specific market for them. Before  COVID-19, a carat of Tsavorite would sell at a price ranging from Kshs 80,000 – 100,000, however, the same carat now only fetches a price of Kshs 10,000-15,000.  

Our engagements with ASM miners in Taita Taveta revealed that they are completely demoralised by the depressed market, as they are hardly making any sales. Those that are buying, dictate the price knowing that the market is depressed and that the miners are desperate to sell. Most buyers are brokers or middlemen, who are taking advantage of this period to buy gemstones at low prices to sell them when the market prices improve, at a higher price. 

Our observations made in Taita-Taveta is that there has been a large shift from small-scale mining because of the depressed market to alternative sources of earning a living. Miners are now rearing livestock as a means of survival. Those that have opted to carry out agricultural or livestock activities for commercial purposes have done so unsuccessfully as they have little knowledge about that industry,  weather conditions have also not been favourable and there’s little or no start-up capital to commence such activities. 

The National Government’s attempts to cushion its citizens from the impact of COVID-19 has seen the reduction of VAT from 16% to 14%; this has partially made a difference for miners in so far as mobile services and petrol prices are concerned. Conversations with miners indicate that prices on essential items, however, did not drop and in some cases had risen as witnessed in Kasighau in Taita-Taveta and Kakamega.

We observed that the majority of ASM groups (68.6%) did not have access to local or international markets with most of them raising complaints about middlemen or brokers who dictate prices. Miners felt short-changed by the brokers and expressed their preference for direct access to foreign buyers

Health and Safety Impacts of COVID-19

Miners in Kakamega informed us that there has been a shortage in supply of mercury, which has largely been attributed to the travel measures put in place by the national government curtailing movement between counties.  Despite Kenya being a signatory to the Minamata Convention,  mercury is still widely used amongst gold miners in Western parts of  Kenya to amalgamate gold. Miners are more often than not oblivious to the risks of using mercury.

COVID-19 and Human Rights Abuses

Conversations with miners and officials in Taita-Taveta revealed that police used force towards miners in the Mkuki area to force them to vacate mining sites to observe curfew directives one year later miners informed us that there have been few or no reported incidents of police abuse and who have allowed miners to go ahead with their normal operations.