Kisii in south western Kenya is where most of the world’s soapstone originates. It’s a vibrant town 192 miles to the west of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi and named after the Kisii tribe.
Soapstone quarrying takes place in the hills around Tabaka, south west of Kisii town. The local people have learned to carve beautiful artifacts from the stone and have come to rely on it as one of their major sources of income.
The soapstone is mined by hand – no machinery is used. It can be particularly dangerous in the rainy season. The mining of these rocks is carried out using crude tools and is clearly labour intensive.
The raw quarry stones are excavated by hand and carried to workshops that are up to 8 miles away. Individual carvers usually specialise in 1 or 2 types of items, as it is a highly skilled job.
In general, the men do the mining, carving and painting and the women do the sanding, washing and packing. The women’s part also involves polishing and washing the finished products as well as applying the shining wax cream. The result may be a beautiful Kenyan Soapstone bowl, ornamental plates, paperweights or carved, decorative animals – all making perfect gifts for someone special.
The local people who own the land actually live on it – their houses are next to the mining pits and they are paid by the kilo for the soapstone that is removed. Their property is very valuable, so the houses stay within the families and the people are very motivated to keep the land in good condition.
The area is extremely poor. There are very few cars and no electricity apart from a few shops. Most of the children walk barefoot and the poverty is obvious when you visit.
Everyone here lives a subsistence lifestyle. Carving useful items from Kisii soapstone brings supplemental income to several families in the district.
The Fair Trade producers we buy from are being paid 25 – 50% above average local market price in Kenya. At present, there are about 25 people working on orders with The Art Safi Self Help Group and I hope by boosting sales of Kenyan Soapstone products it will ensure them a sustainable future.
Below you’ll see products made by Fair Trade artisans and producers at Art Safi. Click on the images to discover more about each product.