This is a jigsaw puzzle that keeps getting bigger. The supply chain in the artisanal mining sector in Migori County, Kenya – and surely in other areas where artisanal mining is practiced – is complex. We want to understand the intricacies of the supply chain, but that chain is made up of a number of different threads. Once a male digger (we have been told that in Migori, without fail, the diggers who go down into the pit are all male) brings up the ore from the pit, several things can happen. He can sell the ore right away; hire someone (a woman) to process it; or process it himself (although I’ve been that the latter option is much less likely).
On my last visit to the mine site where we’re planning to focus our research, I visited a mine shaft at which a contact of ours has been working as an administrator. We sat on a low bench in the small, sweltering building in which the mine shaft was housed – if it was hot in there, I can only imagine how hot it must be in the actual pit! There was an older woman present, who was bent over and picking up stray bits of rock from the dirt floor, collecting them in her other hand.
A few moments later, a heavy bag of ore was sent up from the pit; it took two men at the pulley to pull it out. The digger himself emerged not long after that, covered in yellow powder and wearing a torn shirt that was nearly hanging off him. The bag of ore he had collected was what is known as a “long one”: 50 kilograms of ore. The process of subdividing the rocks began right away, generating quite a buzz of activity within the small building as the pit owners’, company managers’, and diggers’ shares of ore were measured out.
A young woman came in a few minutes after that. My informant told us that the two women were there to buy the ore. There didn’t seem to be much going on in that respect, but he also told us that the women would weigh their options before deciding whether to buy ore directly from the diggers, or go elsewhere – depending on the price they were asked to pay. These transactions may be further complicated by the fact that diggers selling their ore may demand that in addition to giving them money, women also provide them with sex in exchange for the best ore.
In addition to purchasing ore and then processing it themselves, women also engage in processing for others, for example for a small fixed amount per basin of crushed ore that they process using mercury. Men, too, have different options. They can hire women to do the processing of the ore (from what I hear, this is the most popular option) or they can, for different reasons, decide to process it themselves. Men also operate the crushers – the machines that crush the ore into the fine powder that women then process using mercury to amalgamate the tiny particles of gold.

Untangling the different pathways through which ore becomes gold, and figuring out what these pathways each represent in terms of capital accumulation and investment – for women and men – is going to be a challenge. It is clear, though, that men and women’s options are heavily constrained by gender norms. Men’s more immediate access to the ore puts them in a stronger position in the supply chain in terms of obtaining more gold from the ore. I have seen both men and women with their final product, and we’ve had women tell us that the small amount of gold obtained that day would not be enough to cover their expenses.
I’ve also seen a man at a buyer’s office, holding his one and a half grams of gold – a small, rough-textured, subtly golden ball in his hand. The buyer had several such balls in a small plastic bag. There seemed to me to be a big difference between what the men get from their immediate access to superior ore and what women are able to extract. Moreover, some men exchange their labour for ore – which means that their only costs are the opportunity cost of what their labour could procure elsewhere – but a woman has to pay for hers. Yet here, as elsewhere, there is a need for further study.
These are the elements that are more obvious, but we also need to better understand the aspects that we can’t see as easily. If people we’ve spoken to are correct, this is a lucrative business. Who are the hotel owners, who are the sex workers, and are they really benefiting from the money coming out of young male diggers’ pockets – or, as we’ve also been told, are prostitutes regularly cheated of their rightful earnings? Are people at the different levels of the supply chain in this sector investing their capital, or saving it and sending it to their home areas? From our brief initial discussions it seems like Migori County is a place where a digger can invest and get ahead – for example, through buying a nice house with a good tin roof, or sending a child to high school or even university – but are those cases a minority?
The mine sites themselves do not provide obvious visual evidence of capital accumulation, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Are husband-and-wife teams – partners in business – within the artisanal mining sector commonplace, or do women more commonly struggle to access resources within the family? Within the category of “women”, is increasing stratification along class-based lines taking place? And finally, and most importantly for our project, how are all of these dynamics gendered? Putting together the jigsaw and answering all of these questions is going to be a long road…

The above-mentioned research is being carried out as part of the Women’s Livelihoods in Artisanal Mining Sectors: Rethinking State-Building in Conflict-Affected Africa project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Two of the lead researchers on this project, Blair Rutherford and Doris Buss, are with the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University. Visit for more information.

Sarah Katz-Lavigne is entering her third year as a PhD candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Sarah’s research focuses on large-scale mining and property rights enforcement in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Sarah is also a research assistant at Carleton’s Institute of African Studies. She is currently conducting research in Migori, Kenya, on gender dynamics in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Featured Photo by Sarah Katz-Lavigne


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