The sustained resources boom on the global market represents substantial development potential for mining throughout Africa. Henry Laas, managing director of Murray & Roberts Cementation, spoke to Mining Review Africa about this and other pertinent issues within the industry.

"We will continue to focus on the local market, while selecting certain choice clients and projects on the African continent. Our target countries in Africa are Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, Mali and Tanzania. There are 32 projects in the feasibility stage or that are already bankable projects with an estimated value of R17-billion," Laas says.

The resources boom has stimulated exploration and expansion within the continent and there has been significant growth in the copper sector as well as in general exploration activities for other commodities. Murray & Roberts Cementation foresees strong demand for iron ore and copper over the next ten years, driven by the rapidly growing economies of both India and China.

"Platinum projects are also set to continue unabated for at least the next three years. We 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.

Murray & Roberts Cementation is currently in exploration drilling programmes in Zambia for copper and in Ghana for gold. "With the commodity prices we are now witnessing, 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."

There are many factors that mitigate against contracting activities in Africa. "Among these are the long distances and associated logistical challenges. This is always a consideration when assessing possible participation in African projects," says Laas.

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

"Our working knowledge enables us to trump players which do not have the necessary working experience in Africa. These are contracting companies from Australia, Canada and Europe. At the moment there are also contractors from Poland and China aggressively entering the African market, but they also lack expertise under these conditions."

"Many of contractors believe they can compete solely on price, but our technical capability sets us apart and has seen us continue to secure work in Africa. We have a track record of more than 50 years of successfully delivering projects safely and on time," Laas explains.

Murray & Roberts Cementation is currently sinking two ventilation shafts in Tanzania, with the presink being done conventionally and the balance of the shaft to 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 particularly large project, but it is substantial for Namibia and represents a virtually new mine," he says.

Laas says that demand for the design/build capability has risen steeply recently. "Although our design department was established fairly recently, it is thriving and demand for this service has exceeded our expectations," he says.

The design/build option is particularly important and relevant when operating on the African continent. "It remains important for us that we adopt a measured, strategically planned approach in Africa," Laas says.

Design/Build Cconcept

Murray & Roberts Cementation has an enormous reservoir of practical experience to put back into the mining industry and in this way, it 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.

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, which can lead to difficulties.

"This arrangement tends to limit the contribution that contractors can make to projects. The compartmentalised approach filters out a cross-flow of ideas between consultant, engineer and contractor. We have years of experience in constructing mines, carrying out underground development work and mining ore bodies on a contract basis," Laas comments.

The company employs over 29 certificated engineers and 18 certificated mine managers amongst other specialist engineers on its staff. This combined experience can be made available at the planning, systems and engineering design stages of a project.

"Increasingly, we are engaging in activities earlier in the value chain, enabling us to offer engineering and design services in addition to the traditional construction services," he says.

Innovation is One of the Spin-Offs

Years of experience and dedication have led to the development of new technologies in shaft sinking and mine development cycle, which boost productivity and safety. These include an innovative drill rig to reduce the number of people required at the shaft bottom and hence lowering the risk of exposure to falling objects or debris.

Murray & Roberts Cementation technical director Tim Wakefield, explains that the innovative development is currently in a detailed design phase following its six-month development phase. "We believe that the new drill rig will enable us to sink shafts more rapidly."

The drill is essentially a new type of shaft jumbo drill rig and its development is linked closely to a client working in conjunction with Murray & Roberts Cementation on the project.

The company has also made a significant contribution to mining innovations using its V-Mole technology, developed to ensure optimum accuracy on pilot hole drilling in raise boring and shaft boring contracts.

"This technology has been taken a step further and we are now looking at blind shaft sinking," adds Wakefield.

"Most of the technologies for blind shaft sinking exist, albeit not in a single package," he adds, explaining that one of the tricks in the innovation process, used by Murray & Roberts, is to identify innovations and then package these or combine them in such a way as to offer operational benefits.

In addition, the company has contributed to innovation in shaft sinking through the mechanisation of the blow over process at the Impala Platinum #. 20 shaft contract. The mechanisation of the process, traditionally done using pneumatic hoses with operators, has enhanced safety, lowered the risk of injury and resulted in greater productivity.

According to Wakefield, one of the main drivers of innovation is the industry’s skills shortage. "People are entering the market with potential and no experience, and these people appear more able to innovate than established and experienced individuals who are set in their ways," he adds.

Expertise, Not Simply Labour

"It is important to understand that we are not a labour hire company; our business is built on expertise and the use of appropriate technology. We only offer contract mining where we can apply mechanised or semi-mechanised mining methods," Laas continues.

There are a number of commercial arrangements that Murray & Roberts Cementation will undertake when it comes to contract mining. The preferred arrangement is a target cost arrangement that provides an incentive to both parties.

"Our flagship operation is Kroondal, where we are producing 600,000 tpm for Aquarius Platinum. We also provide contract mining services for Associated Manganese and Anglo Platinum," Laas concludes.