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Soapstone dealers starved of cash as pandemic hurts sales

NEWS
By Edwin Nyarangi | September 9th 2021

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

Soapstone miners in Kisii County are struggling to cope with the effects of Covid-19 following depressed sales.

The activity has been the main source of livelihood for Tabaka residents for years. However, following the pandemic the industry suffered a major jolt.

Members of Smolart Self Help Group started producing and selling hand-carved soapstone artefacts in Tabaka Town 30 years ago.

The group’s chairman, Moses Ongesa, said for more than a year, their 200 members have lost their clients, mostly from the United States of America, Germany and Italy due to the travel challenges posed by the pandemic.

He said they sometimes go more than a week without a single sale unlike in the past when stocks will be cleared.

“Two years ago, our customers mainly from Europe and US could walk into our shop and make orders of almost everything that we had displayed and taking them away to their countries where they had a ready market,” Mr Ongesa told The Standard.

He said the group’s members, most of them employing up to five people to assist in making, washing and painting the carvings, had to release the workers until the situation improves.

Isabela Nyakweba displays soapstone carvings at her shop in Tabaka, Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

He recalled the group’s humble beginning in 1990, where they established themselves as one of the prime stone carving groups in Kenya using soapstone, which is only found at Tabaka.

Cosmas Onchomba, who operates a soapstone mine on three acres of family land, said there was a shortage of buyers since the carvings no longer have ready customers.

“We were used to having international and local clients visiting us here to buy raw soapstone, which enabled us to cater for our families’ basic needs, but with the advent of Covid-19 we can go for several days without customers,” he said.

Francis Nyangenya has been in the soapstone mining business for four decades and has never seen a time as bad as last year.

He said some carvers who have never engaged in any other activity were forced to venture into other income-generating activities.

“This will be a season to remember. For the very many years, I have been in the soapstone carving industry, I have not seen people struggling to make ends meet as is happening today,” Mr Nyangenya said.

Jemimah Omweri, who runs a soapstone artefacts shop, said customers are scarce but believes the market will improve once cases of Covid-19 go down.

Covid 19 Time Series

 

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