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Monday, 21 October 2013 11:11

Inside Kenya's First Mining University

BY JOHN MUCHANGI

NAIROBI, OCTOBER 21, 2013 (THE STAR) -- A small university near Voi is breeding Kenya's next crop of mining experts. The principal, Prof Hamadi Iddi Boga, reveals why Taita Taveta University College deserves attention. He spoke with John Muchangi

Q:Your college is probably the only public university built from scratch in the recent past. How did this happen?

Taita Taveta University College started first as a campus of JKUAT in 2007 because there was a plan by the government to expand access to university education. Before, there used to be nothing and there is the story.

Construction of the current premises stopped in 1998 when it was 98 per cent complete. After that nothing happened and it was a matter of public debate. Every time political leaders visited the area they promised they would do something. In 2007 after a lot of lobbying, Prof George Saitoti declared it a campus of JKUAT. We set out to rehabilitate and make it habitable because after 10 years of neglect it had started to degenerate.

So when we admitted students in 2008 they first reported at JKUAT as we rehabilitated the place. In November we brought the students to TTUC and they have been there since. We have graduated two cohorts who have specialised in mining and mineral processing.

Q:Mining and mineral processing is unique. Are you the first local university to train students in this field?

Yes and that's our main focus. Previously there was not much training in this area. Actually there was no training going on in the whole country because we had always believed Kenya is an agricultural country. The programme was developed in JKUAT for TTUC because Taita Taveta County is endowed with minerals like titanium, niobium and there are more discoveries coming up. We started a little late but now we have students specialised in mining who graduated.

Q:Is this a diploma or degree programme?

It's a degree programme and right now we have about 200 students in different years from year one to year five. That's our flagship programme. That's what we want to be known for as a university. We are trying to strategically place ourselves to serve Kenya in the mining sector. Not just Kenya but also the region because Uganda does not have such a school. Tanzania is just starting theirs at the University of Dar Es Salaam. Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo do not have any. Actually we have a shortage of mining specialists globally.

Q:So exactly what kind of professionals are your students trained to be?

They become mining and mineral processing engineers. They know how to plan and design mines. They are able to manage mine sites and process minerals. So we train people who can both mine and process minerals.

Q:How is the mining industry in Kenya at the moment?

We don't have many professionals in mining. We also do not have engineers. We do not have people specialised in mineral economics. So our engineering students also do a bit of mineral economics but this is not enough. It's just to give them a perspective of what is happening in the industry. We have actually structured our academic profile to have mining at the core. Apart from engineering, we have a business school that focuses on mineral economics.

We have ICT, looking at the use of ICT support system in mining. We also teach health sciences, mainly occupational health because we must look at health risk in mining. We too have environmental sciences because mining happens in the environment and it has to be sustainable. So our profile is to have mining at the centre and we hope these programmes will grow into each other and support each other.

Q:How many mining students have graduated so far?

I think about 50 have graduated. Some have gone for masters already, others are employed and some are looking for employment. We have taken back some so they can assist us as we pay their post graduate studies.

Q:You definitely see a lot more potential in the mining industry

The potential is there and right now Kenya is what is known as exploration destination. I think with the advancement in technology, the potential is very big and this sector could contribute more to the GDP. The challenge is the lack of personnel. Lack of lawyers who understand the sector, economists who understand the sector; also lack of geologists and engineers. Because of that shortage, there is isn't much analytical research happening. We live in a knowledge society. So it's knowledge that will help us unlock this potential. We must have people with the right qualifications.

Q:How big is the mining sector or market at the moment?

Mining contributes 0.6 per cent of Kenya's GDP, which is small but the potential is there. We need more exploration. So the country needs to be throughly surveyed, and the government is already doing that. We just need advanced technology and a policy that will promote investment and best practice. We also need a new mining law for the sector.

Q:You mentioned shortage of skilled professionals. Where do you get your lecturers?

We are partnering with several universities and organisations around the world to build our capacity. We already signed an MoU with the University of Curtin in Australia and JKUAT to offer graduate programmes in mining. These include Masters of Science in Mining Engineering, Masters of Science in Geomechanical Engineering, and Msc in Petroleum Engineering. We are also forming a consortium so that we can apply for funding from the African Development Bank through the Ministry of Education to support training in this very unique area.

We also have a partnership with the India Institute of Metallurgy. We have staff exchange with them where they come and teach some of the areas we feel we need support. We also partner with some universities in Germany who offer training in mining.

Q:Many villagers around Mwatate and Voi work in small mines. Do they benefit from the college?

We are actually working with small-scale gemstone miners. We try to build their capacity in gemology. We give them better skills in cutting and marketing. They also learn about the environment. I think your proximity to Tsavo national parks is an advantage if you have wildlife research programmes.

We're headed there. We're developing programmes in research in partnership with scientists from East Africa and the University if Siegen (Germany). We recently held a workshop to look at Tsavo River. You know it's the lifeline of Tsavo ecosystem and there is a lot of abstraction of water around Kilimanjaro where people are using water for irrigation. I don't know if you have passed near Emali recently. You see a lot of tomatoes and onions being sold. It's all supported through irrigation.

Q:You are a small college of less than 3,000 students. Do you have expansion plans?

Yes, we are creating centres of excellence in Voi and other places. We are also talking with private developers around the college to get more land for expansion. We have all these ideas and dreams but we face the challenge of funding. You see, in the West there are certain things universities don't worry about, like water and electricity. You worry about producing research. The funding mechanisms are that you have enough baseline funds to produce your research. Our funding mechanisms shouldn't focus on fees. You can't fund research through student fees but through policy. We also need to work with the government to support post graduate training.

Q:You had water problems in the past. What other challenges do you face?

Well, people live in deserts! As we experience challenges, we learn coping mechanisms. So we have expanded our storage capacity to store more water. We are talking with the county government so we can be connected to Mzima Springs which has more water. So through these two we should find a solution. (END)

 

 
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