Shovelling for a pittance: East Africa’s young sand miners

Kenya’s Makueni County leads the way in taking decisive action to regulate the illegal sand trade.

Children are increasingly involved in sand mining in East Africa. The illegal sand trade occurs in mostly remote areas, hidden from sight and out of reach of anti-child labour advocacy campaigns. That makes it hard to determine the exact number of youngsters involved.

Mined sand is widely used in the construction industry and, in the case of sand mined by children, usually in civil projects. In Uganda, underage boys dredge sand from Lake Victoria and from rivers for paltry wages. They use wooden canoes with no protective gear in these fast-moving waters, risking injury or death.

Unrestored sand pits – large holes dug along paths, the depth of which can be deceptive when filled with rainwater, especially at night – can be fatal to youngsters unaware of their locations. Police seldom follow up on reports of children who have fallen into or drowned in these pits.

Along the Sirare-Isebania border of Tanzania and Kenya, cartels use children to dig sand out of pits. More youngsters join when schools close for the holidays in April, August and December, says Jacob Maluki, Senior County and Community Engagement Officer of the Athi Basin Area for Kenya’s Water Resources Authority.

In Zanzibar’s Mangapwani town and its adjacent villages, such as Bumbwini, children are moving away from selling coconuts to digging and selling sand. The income they receive from the latter is steadier because of the demand from the hotel construction industry.

In Kenya, COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, with out-of-school children moving into the sand business

Children are driven to the illegal industry by economic hardship and unstable household income. Families push their children into mining and selling sand in small quantities, says Halinishi Yusuf, Managing Director of Kenya’s Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority. One reason is that sand mining requires zero investment and is highly informal. As a loader, you need only a spade to ensure a daily wage.

A child in Zanzibar can sell an ox cart of sand for US$1.70 (TSh4 000), earning instant cash. Other children work in unlicensed quarries operated by sand miners who sell three tonnes of sand for between US$30 and US$50 (TSh70 000 and TSh120 000) and pay the children meagre daily wages.

COVID-19 exacerbated the problem in Kenya. The abrupt closure of schools for long periods and parents losing incomes due to business disruption saw children moving into the sand business. At Kaonyweni Secondary School in Kenya’s Machakos County, student numbers dropped from 115 to nine between 2019 and 2021, says Maluki. A similar trend was observed in other schools, such as Mbingoni Primary. Instead of being at school, children were mining sand in rivers. They haven’t returned.

Boys who drop out of school get work as assistants to sand loaders. When they turn 18, they become loaders themselves. Research by the ENACT project found that a loader in Kenya can earn a decent wage of between US$30 and US$60 (KES3 000 and KES6 000) a day.

Despite the known harms of sand mining, governments in East Africa are yet to finalise regulations

Underage girls, whose families pressure them to earn an income from the sand trade, do menial tasks, such as sharpening shovels or selling food to the labourers. They are also lured into commercial sex work, which can result in early pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence.

The involvement of both boys and girls in mining activities generally, including coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is rampant in East Africa. Despite the known harms, countries are still in the early stages of developing regulatory frameworks to control sand extraction.

In Kenya, county governments are responsible for conserving the environment and all natural resources, including sand. But of Kenya’s 47 counties, only Makueni has passed legislation and set up an implementing agency – the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority.

Yusuf says before 2015, when Makueni established its regulatory framework, children were embedded as sand workers, especially in areas such as Kilome and Kikuu. New laws require all sand workers to be 18 years or older and registered through unions, enabling the county inspectorate to order children working on sand harvesting sites to leave. But the policy doesn’t stipulate penalties for recruiting children into sand mining, limiting its effectiveness and accountability.

Taken to scale, local solutions could serve as key disruptors to unsustainable sand mining

In partnership with civil society organisations such as Compassion International and community-based groups, a drive has started to get children back in school. The county government has also run advocacy programmes in homesteads, and some children were offered full scholarships, offsetting the economic incentives of sand mining. Campaigns on local radio stations such as Musyi FM have called for children to return to school, says Yusuf.

At the same time, the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority involves households in ethical sand harvesting in their areas. For example, a Sand Conservation Fund has been established from the revenue earned from sand trade licences and fines. Five percent of this fund goes back into the community to dissuade families from pushing their children into sand mining.

Makueni is perhaps the only local government in East Africa with a comprehensive policy framework and clear provisions that exclude children from sand mining activities. Taking up the issue at a community level is the first step that other local authorities should follow.

Local solutions present a beacon of hope and, if taken to scale, could serve as crucial disruptors to unsustainable and illegal sand mining. ENACT research indicates that solutions must be grounded locally. While international guides from the United Nations Environment Programme and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime cover regional cooperation frameworks, Makueni County shows that government responses are best formulated locally.

Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator, Eastern Africa, ENACT Project, ISS

This article was produced by ENACT.


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Development partners
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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