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Collapse of fluorspar miner leaves Elgeyo residents desolate

Fluorspar

The entrance to Fluorspar Mining Company in Elgeyo Marakwet County, on September 28, 2021. The factory collapsed in 2016. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Summary

  • The collapse of Kenya Fluorspar Company, the single company that has been in operation in Elgeyo Marakwet county for over 50 years has impacted the socio-economic welfare of the residents negatively.
  • The multibillion-shilling mining company today is a pale shadow of itself after it wind up operations almost six years ago over what the management attributed to a prolonged global slump in commodity prices.
  • Fluorspar, used in the manufacture of fluoride for cooling plants, was for decades mined in the 970- acre swathe of Kimwarer, Keiyo South sub-county, forming part of the riches of Kerio Valley basin.

The collapse of Kenya Fluorspar Company, the single company that has been in operation in Elgeyo Marakwet county for over 50 years has impacted the socio-economic welfare of the residents negatively.

The multibillion-shilling mining company today is a pale shadow of itself after it wind up operations almost six years ago over what the management attributed to a prolonged global slump in commodity prices.

Fluorspar, used in the manufacture of fluoride for cooling plants, was for decades mined in the 970- acre swathe of Kimwarer, Keiyo South sub-county, forming part of the riches of Kerio Valley basin.

But the company that was the backbone of economic livelihood of thousands of residents through employment and business opportunities is just but a name.

Machinery that once roared with life now rusts away in the compound that is today bushy. Thousands of workers who were rendered jobless are faced with serious socio-economic challenges.

At its peak, the company exported over 106 000 tonnes of fluorspar before it scaled down its operations in 2014 before halting them in 2016 due to poor international market prices for the minerals.

It had assets worth over Sh5 billion and employed over 3,000 people directly and indirectly contributing to growth and development of economy of the semi-arid region.

What was the main administrative office, factory and Export Processing Zone(EPZ) have all been covered by bushes and tall grass. It has been turned into a grazing field for livestock roaming the region.

The once vibrant Kobil petrol station at the entrance of the main factory has been vandalised while the unprotected open minefields are full of water, posing danger to residents and livestock.

“Operations of the company were instrumental in sustaining the transport and hotel industry that created a lot of job opportunities,” said Ben Komen, a former logistic officer at the company.

Fluorspar mined at Kimwarer was transported by lorries across Kerio Valley to Flax market before being load on wagons and taken to Mombasa port via railway.

“More than 300 lorries transported the minerals from the factory while 200 others were involved in transportation from Kaptagat to Mombasa. There were over 200 lorries operating in the mining field but such opportunities in the transport sector are all gone with the collapse of the company,” said Wesley Kiplagat, one of the residents and former worker at the firm.

The Kimwarer –Nyaru road, which was being maintained by the company, is now in a pathetic state and requires urgent repairs to facilitate smooth transport operations along the Kerio region belt.

“The Kimwarer-Nyaru road was rendered impassable after the company closed shop,” said Joseph Cheruiyot, Kimwarer village elder.

The company had primary and nursery schools and a medical centre and managed athletic programmes and other community activities. They too collapsed with the closure of the company.

The learning institutions have been taken over by the local community while the health facility was handed over by Elgeyo Marakwet County Government.

“A prolonged global slump in commodity prices has negatively impacted extractive business including fluorspar. Low demand and prices since 2012 have led to losses for the last three years,” said Nico Spangenberg, the then Company Managing Director in an interview before it suspended operations.

“A collapse in market conditions led to a dramatic reduction in fluorspar prices and demand and thus the company operations have become unsustainable in the current market,” explained Mr Nico.

At the height of its operations, the company paid an average of Sh20 million monthly for electricity.

The exit of the company now leaves South Africa and Morocco as the remaining African source countries in the world market.

South Africa produces 300,000 tonnes annually, Morocco 100,000 tonnes while Kenya produces an average of 120,000 tonnes.

In terms of global production, China produces 60 percent and Mexico 20 percent complicating the market situation resulting in the closure of mining firms including the Kenya Fluorspar and others in Bulgaria.

Some of the markets which were affected by the closure of the company include Muskut, Kimwarer, Turesia, Kabokbok, Kowochii and several trading centres in Soy.

“Only three out of 13 shops survived when the company suspended its operations in 2009/2010 but the recent move has dealt a major blow to us,” said Leah Jepkurui, an hotelier at Kimwarer market.

Micro-finance enterprises and hotels had set base at Kimwarer market banking on employees from the mining company.

“We have no option but to relocate to other areas due to lack of business since the sacked employees were our main clients,” said Mr Joseph Kwambai who operates an M-Pesa shop at Muskut market.

Local leaders petitioned the government to search for a strategic partner and revive the company.

Led by Governor Alex Tolgos they said machinery worth millions was going to waste.

“It is unfortunate that the machinery is going to rust while hundreds of workers who were sacked are faced with serious economic hardships,” Mr Tolgos said.

“Revival of the company will go a long way in boosting socio-economic status of our people,” Mr Tolgos added.

Leaders termed the exit as a ‘calculated move to avoid paying compensation to the displaced families and evade remitting tax to the government’.

“Forensic audit need to be carried out on the company books of account to establish whether it has been remitting taxes,” demanded Micah Kigen, one of the leaders. He demanded for implementation of a taskforce report that recommended the government to compensate for families displaced from the mining field.

“Both the government and the company need to offer better compensation for the families to empower them to earn decent livelihood,” said Mr Kigen.

He dismissed the Sh450 per acre the government had offered the families for land reimbursement, terming it as too little.

But the more than 1,400 beneficiaries of the Sh1 billion set aside by the government for compensation will have to wait until the National Lands Commission (NLC) completes its verification process.

The government is facing an uphill task in vetting thousands of claims to determine genuine beneficiaries.

According to NLC acting chief executive officer Kabale Tache Arero, the residents will only know their fate after the commission officials establishes the genuine beneficiaries.

“Ministry of Mining, NLC came up with a taskforce to handle the issue of past and present compensation until then, no payment will take place,” Ms Arero said.

In 2018, the government announced the start of vetting of residents in a bid to determine who will benefit from Sh1 billion in compensation after they were displaced to pave way for mining activities but the process is yet to be concluded.

The delay in compensation has been attributed to push and pull between the Ministry of Mining, NLC and office of the county commissioner of Elgeyo Marakwet over the records of previous payments.

PAYMENT DROUGHT

“There were people who were compensated in the 1970s by the county council, when it was raised, we were summoned by the National Assembly…we had to request information from the county commissioner but he gave us inconclusive information barring us to finalise this matter,” Ms Arero.

A cross section of residents have expressed fears that the payment process has taken longer as expected while the amount offered to them by the government is 'too little’.

“Since we were displaced 50 years ago, the value of land has been appreciating and that is why we feel the Sh1 billion announced by the government is a negligible figure,” said Joseph Kandie Chairman Kimwarer Sugutek Community lobby group.

They want thousands of workers affected by the company’s closure to be considered for employment should a new investor take over the management of the factory.

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