The adage that alludes to Karamoja taking baby steps to develop could become another fallacy if the prospects of the region’s mineral endowment are realised through industrial set up and production engineered towards local and export consumption.
Chinese firm, Sunbelt Mining Company are in the process of setting up a factory in Nanyidik village to add value to marble stone, a raw material that is used to manufacture floor and wall tiles, statues, plates, jewellery and other decorative items and ornaments.
They are yet to receive an export licence but even then, their working site is active. Locals are busy with excavators, wide loaders, forklifts, drilling machines and offering menial services.
In order to access the remote village, Sunbelt invested in constructing a 15-kilometre road which has also eased movement and access to health services by community members.
“We have also constructed three dams, one run by solar energy, to enable locals access clean water. I have spent close to a million dollars altogether, the bigger chunk spent towards compensation of locals who lived on the land,” Sunbelt’s director, Sun Zhen Zhong explains.
The mining company is headquartered out of Shan Dong, in Weifeng city in China and is looking at prospects of mining and adding value to marble stones which will in turn benefit the Karamoja region which also has gold, lime among other precious and commercially rewarding minerals.
“We are still waiting for the President to append his signature to allow us export. Uganda does not allow export of raw materials but the prospects of manufacturing locally are bit tricky given the small market size. We would rather export the marble stone to China where we are assured of a ready, sizable market,” Zhong adds.
According to Col Amos Oyugi, the coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) in the Karamoja region, President Museveni has previously expressed the need for Uganda to grow its industrial prospects.
“They would like to export the stones in blocks yet the big man (President) wants them to manufacture from here. The directors of the Sunbelt have told me the machines for cutting titles are yet to arrive,” he adds.
Col Oyugi roots for the Chinese company manufacturing locally which will enable locals buy products cheaply, adding that with the boom in the real estate sector, addition of value to marble stone to produce tiles, has a readily available market to supply.
“Already, factories making tiles in Kapeeka industrial park, are buying marble stone from this company as a raw material. They have also started to negotiate with the community to get land here to set up a factory here. They are currently getting the marble stone from Kanungu,” he adds.
In his state of the nation address, the President said that in an effort to expand Uganda’s economic base, there is need for industrialisation to promote exports using primarily agriculture as the base; this includes industrialisation along the agricultural value chain, light manufacturing and processing our minerals into finished products; and further diversification of the manufacturing sector to increase exports.
According to trade information portal, tradingeconomics.com, Uganda’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP), a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services, mining in Uganda decreased to Shs249.63b in the second quarter of 2019 from Shs254.52b in the first quarter of 2019.
In 2008, the country’s GDP from mining averaged Shs177.19b. Zhong says that Sunbelt could potential remit forex exchange to Uganda as well as providing more employment to locals.
Sunbelt Mining’s subsidiaries include Sunbelt Textiles in Jinja and Namanve. It makes beddings. According to the President, despite the seemingly impressive growth of Africa’s exports to China, the continent remains an insignificant market player in China, accounting for 2.3 per cent (2016), 2.8 per cent (2017) and 3.4 per cent (2018) of the Chinese market share.
He adds that the more disturbing factor is that these exports from Africa are mainly, raw materials, especially oil and gas and minerals. At the moment, Sunbelt mines 1,000 pieces of stone daily.
An average stone measures up to one tonne. To manage the process in Nanyidik village, Sunbelt runs on a horsepower generator 24 hours for seven days. At the end of the month, their fuel bill reads in the range of Shs200m.
With no return on investment yet, Zhong says that his hope to make money is on the projections of what he can accrue after acquiring an export licence. “I am sure that when we start business, there is so much for us to mutually benefit. This community and Uganda as a country will gain as much as we will make out of mining the marble,” he adds.
Sunbelt’s acquisition of land in Nanyidik village has been met with a share of backlashes.
In response, Col Oyugi, who managed the linkage between the investor and locals says Sunbelt acquired the 3.3 square kilometres land through lease arrangement, at Shs1.8b.
He adds that community members are still allowed to mine within the leased land. “Some locals would like to work and be paid daily but many who value saving, have been able to plan. They are paid every two weeks. They are given free food and accommodation which enables them save,” the colonel explains.
He says that the co-existence between the investor, OWC and locals is a continuous learning process. “The ones we started with wanted to pay there and then and when it didn’t happen, they would take items such as wheelbarrows home.”
He adds that the benefits the investor has taken to the village are worth applauding.
“The investor constructed a road from Rupa which has since eased their movement to markets and health centres. Bridges have been built. I had to move with a motorcycle to access this village,” he explains.
Sunbelt has constructed a 15 kilometre murram road and three dams that are powered by solar energy in order to provide clean water to the largely pastoral community.
Through a translator, Obed Kansiime, Zhong says that they are undertaking efforts to co-exist with the community. “We have started a scholarship scheme for five students of community members,” he adds.