Several contractors have started declining participation in mining contracts in Africa due to capacity problems, underscoring the fact that there is a high level of activity, not only in Africa, but also globally. This is according to Henry Laas, managing director of Murray & Roberts Cementation.

"Considering this capacity problem in the market, our main focus will remain on South Africa and Murray & Roberts Cementation will only operate in Africa for selected clients and on selected projects," Laas told Mining Weekly in an exclusive interview.

"Apart from the local market, our target countries in Africa are Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, Mali and Tanzania. In these countries we have currently identified 32 projects that are in the feasibility stage or that are already bankable projects with an estimated value of R17-billion. There are also considerable opportunities within the DRC, however at this stage we have not targeted that country," Laas says.

"Strong commodity growth has stimulated exploration and expansion within Africa. We have witnessed significant growth in the copper sector as well as in general exploration activities for other commodities. As far as the commodity growth is concerned, we foresee strong demand for iron ore and copper over the next ten years. This will be driven by the strong demand out of China and India.”

"Platinum expansion and replacement projects are set to continue unabated for at least the next three years. We also anticipate significant growth in gold project activity; and with the projected shortage in diamonds worldwide, we expect to start seeing some project activity within the diamond sector in Botswana," he says.

At the moment, Murray & Roberts Cementation is involved in exploration drilling programmes in Zambia for copper and in Ghana for gold. With current commodity prices, many projects that were previously not feasible have become viable options.

"However, from our point of view it is still risky to operate in certain parts of Africa. For this reason we have decided to focus on West African countries such as Mali and Ghana as well as Tanzania. This is largely due to the presence of major mining houses in these countries. Murray & Roberts Cementation has been active in Tanzania for many years.

The company is considering participating in a gold mining project in Mali. This is an open pit operation that is now going underground and the intention is to put down a decline system followed by the main infrastructure development on the mine.

"We are well positioned to secure this work, which will have a three-year duration”, said Laas.

There are many factors that could potentially hamper contracting activities in Africa and among these are the long distances and associated logistical challenges. This is even more of a factor in the land-locked countries on the continent. This is always a consideration when assessing possible participation in African projects.

Laas says that the major differentiating factor between Murray & Roberts Cementation and its competitors – and this is especially so when considering the African context – is the company’s extensive experience and operational and applications knowledge on the continent.

"This certainly gives us the edge over other global players that do not have the necessary working experience in Africa. Here I am referring to contracting companies from Australia, Canada and Europe. At this stage there are also contractors from Poland and China aggressively entering the African market, but they too lack expertise under these conditions."

"Many of these players attempt to compete solely on price but we believe that it is our technical capability which sets us apart and has seen us continue to secure work in Africa. We have a track record of more than 50 years in successfully delivering projects safely and on time," Laas remarks.

In Tanzania Murray & Roberts Cementation is currently sinking two ventilation shafts. The presink will be done conventionally while the balance of the shaft will be raisebored.

In Namibia, the company recently completed the design/build surface shaft for Ongopolo Mining and is currently busy with development work to the copper ore bodies. Extraction of the copper has also begun. Known as the Asis Far West project, it is being carried out by Namibia’s only copper producer, close to its existing Kombat Mine in the Grootfontein area.

"We’ve designed and built a new 799 metre deep shaft and we’re also working on the client mining layouts. In South African mining terms it’s not a huge project, but it is substantial for Namibia and represents a virtually new mine," he says.

Referencing the company’s service offering, Laas says that demand for the design/build capability has risen steeply recently. "Although the design department is fairly new, it is doing well and demand for this service has exceeded our expectations," he says.

The design/build option is particularly important and relevant when operating in Africa. "It remains important for us that we will not participate in Africa on a shotgun approach and that we adopt a strategically planned approach," Laas says.

The vast practical experience of mining contractors can help ensure that mining projects are designed with ease of construction in mind and that mining infrastructure that results is cost-effective and fit for purpose. For this to happen, the contractor needs to be involved in the project at a very early stage.

Under the traditional model for undertaking mining projects, consulting engineers and project managers sit on one side of the fence and mining contractors on the other. This approach has its shortcomings.

"The problem is that this arrangement limits the contribution that contractors can make to projects. This compartmentalised approach filters out a cross-flow of ideas between consultant, engineer and contractor and doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of clients very well. We have years of experience in constructing mines, carrying out underground development work and mining ore bodies on a contract basis," Laas comments.

Murray & Roberts Cementation currently has over 29 certificated engineers and 18 certificated mine managers amongst other specialist engineers on its staff. This is an enormous reservoir of practical experience, which can be made available at the planning, systems and engineering design stages of a project.

"Certainly Murray & Roberts Cementation is increasingly engaging in activities earlier in the value chain, which enables us to offer engineering and design services in addition to the traditional construction services," he says.

Conventional style projects have their place, and Murray & Roberts Cementation continues working on the basis of providing only a contracting service, as it has done for decades, as well as offering a design/build or early project involvement.