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Connecting People and Ideas for Integrated Development

Queen of the Quarry

Catherine Tatu

Catherine Tatu

Some girls consider law, medicine, or even music as a career option after graduation. Catherine Tatu, 27, wasn’t one of them. Raised in a community of miners in Taita Taveta County, Kenya, she was drawn to the little-understood industry.

Taita Taveta County is home to over 40 high-value gemstone mines and over 10 industrial mineral mines. It was not until the Mining Act of 2016 was passed that artisanal miners were legally recognized. This allowed them to source the necessary permits, lobby government, legally mine, and sell minerals. Most artisanal miners roam around, excavating manually across lands haphazardly and sometimes illegally, which earned them the name mazurura, meaning nomads. “Most of the mining is conducted in the bush, game parks, and private ranches in Taita Taveta County, and it is heavily male-dominated. I was told I might be raped, and I myself had heard many such stories about women in mining,” Tatu recalled.

In 2014, Tatu received a partial scholarship to pursue a degree in community development and social work. She deferred her studies after a year though, as she struggled to raise the tuition fees. Tatu then opted to farm vegetables, poultry, and tree seedlings in her ancestral land. This proved difficult, as her neighbors continually sabotaged her. “It was extremely frustrating. Even old men would break the stems of the trees before they matured, ruining entire fields,” recounted Tatu.

In 2017 when nothing else seemed to work, Tatu ventured into mining with only $10 in her pocket to invest. After long discussions, her family consented to giving her ownership of their 9.5 acres of land, rich with white granite. White granite is used extensively in home interior design products, such as terrazzo flooring and kitchen countertops.

Like most artisanal miners across the county, Tatu started with no knowledge of the mining industry. She walked seven miles daily on bad, rural roads to mine. She hired one artisanal miner in an attempt to expand her business, but his work was inconsistent. “I was still determined to make this work and prove to my family I could make it,” she remarked.

Tatu attended entrepreneurial training for miners offered by Taita Taveta University in 2018. The training was organized by the Agile and Harmonized Assistance for Devolved Institutions (AHADI) project that is implemented by the University at Albany’s SUNY Center for International Development. “I learned so much about investment, the Mining Act, conservation, taxes, permits, and using machinery. I also conducted an impact assessment for small scale mining as part of the training,” said Tatu.

After the training, her fortune began to change. Tatu now employs three workers, who produce one ton of ballast daily, sold wholesale at $13. “I am also sourcing a ballast crusher machine from China to improve the quality of the ballast we produce, which will allow me to raise the price.”

Tatu also joined the Taita Taveta Miners Association, an umbrella organization of miners in the county, which AHADI supports. “We are determined to bring in more artisanal miners to network, learn, and strategize together. Thanks to AHADI, we have knowledge and so much potential, which will take us further,” enthused Reverend David Nzowe, chairperson of Taita Taveta Artisanal Miners Association.

The association is currently in talks with the Kenya Revenue Authority to learn more about taxation and also negotiate tax exemptions on certain imported items. As well, the association is working to build a resource center in its Voi town headquarters to provide more information on legislation, partnerships, and access to international markets. It is currently organizing its first gemstone auction.

“Without that sponsored training, we would never have been able to do this. That training brought us together as artisanal miners, and now we can do so much more,” said Peter Lutimiru, vice-chairperson of Taita Taveta Artisanal Miners Association.

Tatu is sourcing investment to grow her quarry operations further. She has also resumed her schooling at the Coast Institute of Technology in Voi town. “This is just the beginning. I see myself in the future owning one of the biggest quarries in Taita Taveta County and later becoming Kenya’s mining minister,” she concluded with a smile.

See more of SUNY/CID's work in Kenya

Posted July 31, 2020