In the sweltering sun, a group of young men chip away at boulders to create gravel at Ebusiralo, off Luanda-Majengo road in Vihiga County.
This has been their daily routine and only source of livelihood.
“We report to work at 6 am and leave at 5 pm daily. For every wheelbarrow of the gravel we crush, we get paid Sh30, a pick-up truck is Sh100 and if you fill a lorry, you earn Sh200,” says Mr Raphael Onguko, one of the stone crushers.
Mr Onguko, 22, says businessmen from Luanda town have contracted them to crush the stones for them, and if you don’t meet the set target, you don’t get paid.
The businessmen then sell the gravel at Sh4,000-Sh6,000 for a full pick-up truck, while a lorry goes for between Sh7,500 and Sh10,000.
“This is pure exploitation but that’s the only job available. Accidents and lack of protective gear have exposed us to respiratory diseases, hearing impairment and blood pressure,” he says.
Mr Peter Otanga, 66, hails from the Emmutsa area in Luanda Sub-county. His three-acre parcel of land is covered by rocks.
“I partitioned the land and gave a portion to each one of my three sons who also subdivided them for their children. The land has continued to shrink, leaving us with no space for farming. That is why we resorted to crushing stones as a source of living,” says Mr Otanga.
He is among thousands of Vihiga residents who expected to mint money from the rocks on their farms after both the county and national governments announced plans to set up a Sh50 million granite factory in the area five years ago.
Governor Wilber Ottichilo had promised that the factory would be built between June 2018 and June 2019, but did not happen.
Mr Otanga has been watching politicians paint the rocks with party colours and campaign messages without seeking permission.
“We don’t have money to print posters but we have to make ourselves known to the electorate. So, we use the rocks as a medium to reach the voters with our campaign messages,” says Mr Japheth Odera, an Emabungo MCA aspirant.
The rocks along the Luanda-Majengo, Kima-Chavakali and Luanda-Maseno roads have all been painted and bear campaign messages for various political aspirants.
In July 2020, Governor Ottichilo handed the title deed for a 10-acre parcel of land to former Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes, paving the way for the construction of the factory.
The CS announced that Sh51 million had been released for fencing of the construction site.
“Vihiga has the potential to grow economically and create jobs for the locals since it is endowed with granite stones. This is a big resource that if well harnessed will be a game-changer in the region,” said Mr Munyes when he toured the area.
According to Mr Ottichilo, the factory would create at least 1,000 direct jobs and over 5,000 indirect jobs.
Nonetheless, the project is shrouded in controversy, with some locals claiming that the county government has encroached on their land.
Some residents are opposed to the factory because they fear it will cause environmental and health challenges.
Mr Charles Makokha, a resident, claims the project site was extended into private farms. “The county owns about three out of the 10 acres. We rushed to the land registry and paid Sh6,000 in order to stop any development on the plot,” he says.
“We shall not relent until Governor Ottichilo ensures there is public participation and fresh demarcation of the land.” “He (Ottichilo) said we would get free electricity and piped water if we agreed to cede part of our land, that has not been fulfilled,” says Mr Makokha.
Residents say some people who claimed to have been sent by the county government erected beacons on their farms.
Mr Joseck Ang’ana, an environmentalist, says whoever gave out an environmental report on the viability of the factory could have had ulterior motives.
“The existence of the granite factory in the area will do more harm than good. The only good place the factory would have been constructed is in the hilly areas where raw materials can easily be found and not at Emwatsi,” says Mr Ang’ana.
Mr Ottichillo could not be reached for comment. However, Defence CS Eugene Wamalwa said the granite factory is among the projects President Uhuru Kenyatta will inspect when he tours Western.
The CS did not divulge when the president is expected to visit, only saying it will happen before the August 9 General Election.