By Sharon Atieno

Rough and dilapidated roads and pathways are a common sight in sand mining villages including Kobala, Rakwaro and Kobuya in Homa Bay county, western Kenya.

The roads are also dusty, and every so often apart from the boda bodas (motorcycles), it is not uncommon to see sand-ferrying trucks crisscrossing these roads while others remain parked idly by the roadside.

Huge gullies remain abandoned in these villages with little or no form of rehabilitation ongoing. Some of them including the smaller pits have become breeding grounds for malaria-causing mosquitoes as rainwater collects in them.

A road in Kobala village is dilapidated due to lorries passing while carrying loads of sand
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Homa Bay County is about 370 km from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The county borders Africa’s largest freshwater lake and the world’s second with a surface area of 68,000 km2. Lake Victoria is shared among three countries Kenya (6%), Uganda (45%), and Tanzania (49%). On the Kenyan front, the county has the lion’s share of the Lake’s shoreline.

The dominant economic activities are fishing and fish trade, followed by agriculture with cotton and sugarcane being the region’s main industrial crops. According to the county’s strategic plan, there are over 150,000 farm families with an average of 2.2 acres farm per family. However, the mining of sand and other minerals is also gaining momentum.

Though sand and its illegal extraction in Kenya is a relatively understudied subject and limited research is available, media reports indicate that sand mining happens across all areas bordering Lake Victoria including Migori, Siaya, and Kisumu counties.  

Poverty is a major driver of illegal sand mining in Homa Bay County. By 2016, the county’s poverty rate was at 22.7%. Though residents engage in the activity for various reasons, lack of alternative livelihoods and quick money is at the center of it.

A cow grazing near a sand harvesting site in Rakwaro
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

According to Mikal Achola, sand harvesting site owner and resident of Kobala village, financial constraint is the only reason forcing people to harvest sand from their farms. In her family’s case, they resorted to sand mining after failing to secure enough money to bring their elder son’s body from Nairobi after his death.

“Here in Kobala, food insecurity and lack of school fees are pushing people to engage in sand harvesting,” Achola says, adding that there is really not much profit from the activity.

“To dig until six feet, the harvesters take shs. 600 (about five dollars) each, loaders are paid shs. 200 (about two dollars) each and the land owner remains with shs. 800 (about seven dollars). This is a loss because you have to fill around ten lorries to earn at least shs. 7000 (about US$ 56),” she notes.

“If you didn’t have that pressing need, then turning your farm into a sand harvesting site wouldn’t be an option.”

A farmland turned into a sand harvesting site in Kobala village
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

For Lorna and her husband Julius Ambaa from Kobuya village, some 200 metres from Kobala village, farming was no longer a profitable venture, and sand harvesting became the available option.

The couple which has four kids with the eldest being 17 years used to use their portion of land about three acres for growing cassavas and a small part for bananas.

According to Mrs. Ambaa, crop productivity has been decreasing every year, a factor she claims might be due to the changing weather with rains failing to come as expected.

She notes that from harvesting eight to ten bags of cassava, the number reduced to about four bags. This is after waiting for seven months for the crop to mature.

“Sand harvesting is more profitable compared to when we used to farm bananas and cassava,” Mrs. Ambaa says, adding that from the sale of her cassava, she would earn shs. 2000- 3,200 (about USD 15 -24) per bag. But with sand harvesting, the couple is receiving shs. 7,000 to shs. 10,000 (about USD 54-77) per day.

Like Ambaa and Achola, a number of residents in these villages have given their farms either fully or partially to sand harvesting, leaving only a small portion for cultivation.

In  Ambaa’s case, they remain with only about two acres where they grow crops like maize, beans, cassava and sorghum for consumption and the surplus for sale.

Damianus Osano, Kobuya area chief notes that in his area farmers neighboring each other are combining their parcels of land to reap maximum benefit from sand mining.

“Food security has gone down because people are harvesting sand from their parcels where they were growing crops,” Osano says, adding that even the prices residents are getting for the sand are not enough to purchase other parcels of land for cultivation.

From a lorry carrying seven tonnes of sand, he says, the farmer can earn shs.1000 to 1500 ( about USD 8 to 11) or less, depending on their bargaining power.

Despite this exploitation, the sand is often transported to neighboring counties of Kisii, Migori and Kericho with a lorry going for as much as shs. 15,000 to 20,000 (about US$ 121- 161) and as little as shs. 6,000 (about US$ 48).

A satellite image of a farmland in Kobuya village which has grown into a large sand harvesting site over the years
GIF credit: Kuek Ser Keng

According to the area Chief of Wang Chieng’ Location, Cosmas Odipo where Rakwaro and Kobala villages are situated, food security is an issue of concern due to these sand mining activities.

He notes that in his area, there are at least 30 sand mining sites with sizes ranging from half an acre to ten acres depending on the portion of land owned by one individual.

Odipo observes that the area used to be very productive and most people would grow crops such as maize, cassava, sorghum, and groundnuts among other crops. But over the years, productivity has gone down due to sand harvesting activities which people see as a quick way to get money.

He says that even the staple food in the area such as sorghum and cassava which used to come in handy during periods of drought can no longer be found in the area and as a result, community members are usually forced to purchase maize from neighbouring villages, where people have grown the crop.

Even fishing which is one of the main economic activities has been dwindling due to climate change and illegal fishing gear, Odipo adds, noting that this has forced some of the fishermen to also turn to sand harvesting to supplement their income.

“Most of the farms have been harvested to the extent they have become very unproductive such that even if one plants anything on them the crops don’t grow,” he says.

A satellite image of two farmlands in Rakwaro that have been turned into sand harvesting sites
GIF Credit: Kuek Ser Keng

The  Homa Bay County National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) director, Josiah Nyandoro says the sand mining harvesting going on in Homa Bay County is illegal.

He notes that in 2019, NEMA Director General imposed a ban on sand harvesting which is not subjected to environmental impact assessment (EIA) nor licensed before it commences. 

Currently,  there is only one company, Mango Tree, which has been approved to conduct sand harvesting in the county upon approval of their EIA.

“We are not saying no to sand harvesting. But what we require is regulated sand harvesting where the project is subjected to an environmental impact assessment and all the negative impacts associated with that project have their mitigation measures cited so that we have sustainable development,” Nyandoro.

Josiah Nyandoro, Homabay County NEMA Director
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

According to him, the impact assessment should be followed by serious and adequate public participation for the communities to share their thoughts and the possibility of having mitigation measures that are considered homegrown.

With most of the sand harvesting sites not adhering to the National Sand Harvesting Guidelines, 2007, there have been a lot of negative impacts on the environment and people in these areas.

Among these recommendations include lakeshore/seashore and riverbed sand harvesting not exceeding six feet in depth while on-farm sand harvesting should be carried out at designated sites with a buffer zone of at least 50 meters from the riverbanks or dykes.

The guidelines also require that harvesting should be done simultaneously with the reclamation of regions that had been exhausted.

In riverbed sand harvesting, it should be done in such a way that ensures that a substantial amount of sand is preserved to retain water.

However, most of these guidelines are flaunted resulting in serious consequences for residents.

John Otieno Odede displaying what is left after his home was flooded as a result of sand mining activities
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

John Otieno Odede,40, is a resident of Kobala village with two wives and nine children. He inherited land from his father which used to be a sand harvesting site.

The land is situated a few meters from the river Sondu’s bank. A few months ago, heavy rains resulted in flooding of the water body. The water crossed over and following the gullies left from the sand harvesting activities, destroyed two of his houses. The one remaining is already exhibiting signs of collapsing with fault lines all over its walls.

He has been forced to build a temporary shelter made of iron sheets for his family.  The incident also forced him to change occupations, from farming to fishing in order to make ends meet as he is the only breadwinner in his family.

“We don’t have anywhere to farm. The soil has become waterlogged and only water comes out of it. Crops don’t grow,” Odede says. “This has resulted in food insecurity as we cannot have food because there is no place to farm.”

In Rakwaro village, about 200m from Kobala, Mary Atieno, probably in her fifties, lost her nephew and his friend. The two teenage boys in primary school used to work as sand harvesters.

The widow’s immediate neighbor had converted his land into a sand harvesting site and the boys saw this as an opportunity to make quick money to support the family.

Though the law prohibits the employment of minors (children below 18 years), school-going children especially boys flock to sand mining sites during the evening hours to do casual labour. They take part in scooping sand or loading trucks for as much as shs. 100 -200 (about a dollar or two) depending on the work done.

children working at a sand harvesting site in Kobala village in the evening
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Thus, it was not unusual for Atieno’s nephew and his friend and several other boys to be found at the site on that particular Sunday evening when the sand mine caved in on the two of them.

Atieno’s land which encompasses her house and farm is at risk of destruction should further erosion occur on the abandoned sand harvesting site left by her neighbor. Additionally, she fears that if it rains heavily and the river which is just nearby follows the gradient left by the sand harvesting activities on the neighbor’s land, her land will be no more. 

Already, the small strip of land separating her land and the abandoned site, and the river are showing signs of weakness with cracks all over the ground.

“In the coming year, we will not be standing here. This place will have turned into a river,” Atieno says hopelessly, calling on the government to take action and reclaim the land.

“A legal activity has been turned into an illegality because of how they do it,” Odipo says, noting that the law to govern sand harvesting is not straightforward to cushion the way it should be harvested. 

He noted that they usually do barazas (informal meetings where the community members gather in the chief’s camp or at a central point in the village) to sensitize people on the need to stop the unsustainable sand harvesting activities as often as possible but people are stubborn and don’t give heed to them.

Odipo says the chiefs have even worked with police to arrest sand owners but nothing much is usually done as they are usually left on bail due to a lack of proper sand regulations in the county.

Both Odipo and Osano agree that if stiff regulations could be implemented, it would help to keep the practice in check as everyone venturing into the practice would conduct an environmental impact assessment as required by NEMA and the environment would not be so destroyed.

For the last three years, NEMA has been able to arrest 69 people, who have been fined between Kshs. 5,000 – 200,000 (about US$ 40 -1,612).

Notably, Nyandoro says that the conflict of interest between NEMA and the County government is also to blame for the activity thriving in the region.

While NEMA looks at sand harvesting as an activity that requires regulation through EIA and licensing, the County looks at the activity as a cash cow. This is because revenue officers have been deployed by the roadsides to collect cess from lorry drivers ferrying sand and other natural resources.

Additionally, Nyandoro says that the county governments should enact their own Bills on sand harvesting to go hand in hand with National laws.  

The first regulation to govern sand activities including harvesting and trading of sand was enacted in 2007- but the regulation was not implemented. The change in Kenya’s constitution in 2010, left the task for county governments to develop and implement policies on natural resources and environmental conservation including sand.

So far, in Kenya, only one county- Makueni-has put in place a framework of such policies and an authority on sand harvesting. 

Cosmas Ochieng Ouma, Homa Bay County Environmental Inspector Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Denying the accusation leveled by NEMA, Cosmas Ochieng Ouma, Homa Bay County Environmental Inspector, says that the county sensitizes the community against the negative impacts of sand harvesting and encourages people to rehabilitate lands that have been degraded through the planting of trees. 

Additionally, he notes that the County already has a sand harvesting Bill which is trying to address livelihoods, sustainability of the resource and environmental conservation.

Among the recommendations proposed in the Bill, Ouma says, is that part of the revenue accrued from the harvesting can be used to develop the community by preparing roads leading to sand harvesting sites and environmental sustainability.

Also included is the need for sand harvesters to rehabilitate land before moving to another one, failure to which the license will be revoked.

Currently, the Bill is at the county assembly waiting for approval from the members before it is assented into law by the governor.

This story is part of Beneath The Sands, produced in partnership with the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC). This partnership brings in journalists from 12 countries to expose how a weakly regulated industry overlooks the environmental destruction and human toll of the highly lucrative and low-risk business of sand mining.