Sand mining site in Kwale County, Kenya.
Photo: Kennedy Mkutu

Shifting grounds - The politics of sand in East Africa

Research project
Active research
Project period
2022 - 2024
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Short description

The world’s most used solid resource, the key ingredient of what we imagine as ‘modernity’—sand—usually escapes our attention. Skyrocketing demand for sand has sparked conflict and has resulted in loss of life in many countries in the global South.
This project is an inquiry into the ‘the politics of sand’ in one of the world’s most rapidly urbanizing regions: East Africa. What makes this project unique is that it explores political contestations at the nexus of sand mining and its wider national value chains. By following everyday practices of mining as well as the logistics of sand across the region, the project will not only make visible disputes around sand but will additionally identify opportunities to elicit a broadened regional dialogue on the need for active governance of sand exploitation across the region.

Project members

Cooperation partners

  • Prof. Kennedy Mkutu, United States International University Africa, Nairobi
  • Dr Michael Owiso, Maseno University, Kenya

Project activities


June 2024: Environmental awareness training for nine local journalists by Environmental Africa Trust (held 10-11th June, Wote, Makueni County)

June 2024: results dissemination meeting in Homabay with 30 participants (6th June) organized by project partner Dr Michael Owiso (Maseno University) and Kilifi with 30 participants (12th June) convened by Benard Musembi Kilaka.

Stakeholder meeting in Kilifi, Kenya, on 12 June 2024.
Photo: Benard Musembi Kilaka

November 2023: Project meeting at USIU Kenya on 20th November during which all our Kenyan associates presented findings from their field research.

Autumn 2023: Project partner Prof Kennedy Mkutu, research associate Wangui Mbuiguro and Jan Bachmann organized a results dissemination workshop with 70 stakeholders in Voi, Taita Taveta County, on 17 November.

Autumn 2023: Project partner Dr Kate Dawson (UCL) together with the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) held a stakeholder workshop on sand extraction in Freetown.

Workshop group picture at USIU in Kenya on 20 November, 2023.

Autumn 2023: Postdoctoral researcher Benard Musembi Kilaka and our Maseno partners Michael Owiso, Alphonce Kasera and Benson Nyambedha collected data in Kenya (Kilifi, Makueni, Homa Bay Counties) and Uganda (Lake Victoria, Lwera wetlands).

June 2023: Jan Bachmann and project partner Katherine Dawson (University College London) convened a panel on sand extraction at the European Conference on African Studies in Cologne, Jan Bachmann and project partner Prof Kennedy Mkutu presented initial findings.

Spring 2023: Extensive fieldwork is being carried out in the Kenyan counties of Kwale, Taita Taveta and Narok with our partners at USIU.

Kilifi, Kenya.
Photo: Jan Bachmann

Ongoing and upcoming events

  • Spring and Summer 2024: sand value chain analyses at selected case sites in Kenya and Uganda.

  • November 2024: national dissemination and stakeholder meeting; Nairobi.


  • Article by Jan Bachmann, Kennedy Mutu and Evelyne Owino 2024. (Re-)moving earth, building Kenya – the politics of sand extraction in Kedong. Geoforum (link to the left).
  • Two Master theses by two of our research associates (Nelson Omwoyo and Lucy Mbuguiro, USIU Nairobi)
  • Five field reports

In progress: three academic papers, major synthesis report, edited volume on sand extractivism (with Katherine Dawson)


In the vivid discussion on resources and minerals, sand is a late entry. The latter is surprising given that conditions of mining and trade of sand in rapidly urbanizing contexts have yielded a political economy premised upon exploitation and violence across the global South. It’s time to put those contestations on the map of critical inquiry.

Sand is the pivotal but under-acknowledged ingredient of modernity. Amenities that facilitate mobility and basic means of subsistence—roads, housing—are made of sand. Yet, sand is often taken for granted and, moreover, perceived as abundant. Global demand for sand, driven by extensive urbanization and large connectivity projects, has been skyrocketing to the extent that ecosystems such as rivers, lakes and sand-bearing landscapes are exploited at an unimaginable scale. The world consumes around 50 billion tons sand, mainly for the production of concrete, annually. Unsurprisingly, natural replenishment of sediment does not compensate for current the rate of extraction.

Accordingly, UNEP has called ill-regulated sand harvesting one of the most serious sustainability issues of the 21st century. The growing demand has turned this “development resource” into a lucrative business of extraction with violent conflict, environmental devastation and immense profits for the few as its core features. East Africa, as one of the fastest urbanizing regions on the planet, has seen its share of adverse social and environmental consequences of uncontrolled sand mining.

What is at stake?

While the harvesting of sand constitutes a livelihood for tens of thousands youths across Kenya and Uganda, mainly where alternative means of income are limited, unregulated harvesting depletes ecosystems and puts other livelihoods at risk. Furthermore, the astonishing appetite for sand in urban centres makes investment in the sand business a profitable endeavour for the already powerful. In other words, widespread ill-regulated extraction has shown its adverse social and environmental effects affecting communities across the two countries.

What are our cases?

Our research teams, consisting of researchers from USIU, Maseno University as well as the School of Global Studies, collect data across Kenya and Uganda. After initial scoping missions carried out in 2022, fieldwork takes place 2023 and 2024 in the Kenyan counties of Makueni, Machakos, Kajiado, Taita Taveta, Kwale, Narok, Kilifi and Homabay. Work in Uganda takes place around the major harvesting sites at Lwera wetlands as well as along Lake Victoria.

Sand-mining site in Kilifi County, Kenya.
Photo: Jan Bachmann

Research aims and question

The aim of the project is to map disputes emerging in the context of sand-mining and trade in East Africa and to create general awareness for the scope of the problem. The project asks how dynamics of sand extraction and trade shape and are shaped by larger political constellations on the local as well as national level.

How do we go about answering them?

We trace economic, environmental and social issues emerging around resource extraction and along the sand value chain at major mining sites in 8 different counties in Kenya and two larger sites in Uganda. We trace those dynamics in two ways: bottom up from mines to markets and top-down from sites of demand (such as large housing or infrastructure projects) back to the sources of sand. The former allows for comprehensive scoping of mine-specific issues in a variety of areas; the latter may point us to temporary sites of extraction that mushroom in the context of large infrastructure projects.


The project is premised upon extensive field research both at mining sites as well as along the value chain of sand. At the first stage, the research teams zooms in on identifying disputes at the sites of extraction, by interviewing loaders, communities, brokers and local authorities. At the second stage, data collection focuses on dynamics along the value chains. The variety of sites (scale, ecosystem, contestations, two countries) allows for a comparative approach to sand extraction. The findings will be shared and discussed at stakeholder meetings both at selected sites of research and at the national level. We furthermore collaborate with Natural Justice who will develop an application that makes it possible for communities across the country to register emergent issues in relation to resource extraction. In addition, we work together with Environmental Africa who sensitize local journalists and researchers on new ways to report issues related to natural resources.