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Kisii traders fail to carve out a profit from soapstone

By Edwin Nyarangi and Eric Abuga | April 20th 2021
Jemima Bitengo arranges soapstone carvings in her shop at Tabaka in Kisii County. Traders have complained of exploitation from middlemen. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

In May 2019, the government announced plans to put up a soapstone value addition centre to benefit soapstone miners in South Mugirango in Kisii County. 

The pronouncement was music to the ears of locals who for more than 50 years have suffered at the hands of middlemen, capitalising on the lack of a market for their products and poor mining technology locally. 

Mining and Petroleum Cabinet Secretary John Munyes speaking at Tabaka said the project would be a collaboration between the county and the national governments. 

According to Munyes, the government was to receive a feasibility report on the project by the end of June 2019.  

He noted that soapstone value addition is among the four national projects being undertaken by the ministry.

Others, he said, are gemstone in Voi, gold refinery in Kakamega and granite mining in Vihiga. 

“Investors want to understand the market. In line with the Big Four agenda, we can’t afford to continue losing this important stone,” said Munyes.

Kisii has lost so much money from the exports of soapstone whose little semblance is only found in Canada,” said Munyes. 

However, close to two years on, the government is yet to make public the report on the feasibility study.

Jemima Bitengo arranges soapstone carvings in her shop at Tabaka, Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Kisii County is famed for soapstone mainly mined at Tabaka.

The mineral is used to make various artistic products, which are sold locally and internationally.   

But the local economy does not have much to show for years of exploiting the mineral. 

Thomas Mokaya, 48, said he still struggles to feed and educate his children despite being in the trade for nearly 25 years.

Die poor

“A good portion of my land is all about soapstone. The painful reality, however, is that we don’t have a market for our products,” said Mokaya. 

He said exporters continue to make millions at the expense of sculptors, most of whom die poor and dejected.

“There are very few individuals who have made it big through curving soapstone,” said Mr Mokaya. 

Victor Ogoti, another sculptor, shares Mokaya’s frustrations at the lack of progress in reforming the sector.

“We can create employment and have this area gazetted as a tourism area,” he said.

Soapstone is derived from a metamorphic rock that is naturally soft, dense and heat-resistant with a high specific heat capacity, making it easy for artists to mould a wide variety of sculptures.

Jemima Bitengo arranges soapstone carvings in her shop at Tabaka in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Locals have been mining the unique stone locally known as the Kisii stone for the last 200 years.

Shem Mogendi, a member of the Maxibrains Sculptors Group, who has been in the industry since 1988, believes the sector has the potential of turning around the lives of the locals if formalised.  

“In Tabaka, we are blessed with the soapstone, which has the potential of economically empowering our people,” said Mr Mogendi. 

Maxibrains have done several carvings, with the life-size sculptor of the legendary Gusii foreteller Sakawa among their most prized works. 

Mogendi said they are currently creating similar works of famous individuals from the communities in the Lake Region Economic Block.

Due taxes

They hope to present the carvings to the respective county administrations as a way of promoting their craft. 

Osborne Obara, a soapstone miner said the lack of intellectual property rights encumbers miners from realising the full benefits of the mineral.

He said in some instances, some foreigners lease mining sites from locals and end up exporting the stone to their home countries without paying due taxes to the government. 

Traders have complained of exploitation from middlemen. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

“Our products need vigorous marketing worldwide. We need support from each and every stakeholder,” 

‘’We are very surprised that tourists from abroad appreciate our work more than our people. It is high time that our people change their perception over the great work of art, they should value what we have.” 

Tabaka Ward Member of County Assembly Daniel Apepo, who is a major exporter of soapstone curios, said the trade is yet to be given the prominence it deserves.

“This is the only unique product from Kisii County. Efforts should be made to make it part of the identity of the county,” he said.

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