Exclusive interview with Mark Wellington, General Manager, Minelab MEA, gold sponsors at the upcoming Nigeria Mining Week Digital Event from 16-20 October.
Let’s start with some background on Minelab, there is a proud history there.
We have over 35 years of history and at least 20 years in Africa. It was established by people fresh out of the University of Adelaide who built a metal detector. The company has always been based out of Adelaide in Australia and our detectors first started being used in Africa about 20 years ago.
But for us, business on this continent started to get serious when the 2008-2009 gold rush started in Sudan. This event was actually sparked by one of our detectors, called a GPX 4500. And there was a desperate dash for this item, everyone wanted one. Particularly people in the gold industry in Dubai were contacting Minelab for equipment.
We eventually appointed a distributor in Dubai because it is the trading hub – perhaps not as much as it was – but back in those days, almost everything that went into and came out of Africa, came through Dubai. In 2014 we took over this distributorship and we opened our office in Dubai in 2015.
Since then we have grown our revenue about nine fold, mainly because we understand what our end users need and we are able to support our customers much better.
Minelab also manufactures other types of metal detectors, the sort of detectors you see with people walking along the beach, looking for coins, jewellery and treasure. That is an extremely strong business but not in Africa. We also make devices for counter-mine and mine hunting activities and looking for other explosive devices.
What are you focusing on in Nigeria, mainly the large artisanal mining industry?
Nigeria would probably be our most exciting prospect because of the size of the country and the size of the artisanal mining industry there and because of the Nigerian Government’s focus on developing the industry.
Our first real experience with the Nigerian market was in 2017 with Nigeria Mining Week. We participated in the exhibition when it was still very much in its infancy. We didn’t understand the market at all.
The thing about Nigeria is, until you start to know some people and spend time there, much of the news about Nigeria is not positive. And through Nigeria Mining Week we got to meet people and we got to understand the country and the needs of the country a lot better.
And what is quite unusual with artisanal mining, the Nigerian government wants to play a major role in developing the industry.
In 2018 we exhibited again and we set up a dealership with a local company and we got to meet Hajiya Fatima Shinkafi, the Executive Secretary of the Solid Minerals Development Fund, and we started to understand better what the Nigerian government’s goals were as far as mining development in general but also that artisanal mining was a major part of that.
Of course, with the lead up to the elections in 2018 and early 2019, there was gradual development and then in 2019 the next Nigerian Mining Week came along and we got to meet more people and understand things better and now we have a plan.
This has been slowed down a bit by the Coronavirus, but we have definite goals to work as closely as possible with government and the various Nigerian Mining Industry institutions.
We also understand the size of the market a lot better. We understand that there could be as many as 20-million artisanal gold miners in Nigeria and that is incredibly exciting. We also visited some mining sites and there are some detectors used but it is generally really low technology that’s being used on these sites.
So, we believe that we can make a real contribution. It is definitely a commercial opportunity for us but we believe we can also make a contribution to the development of artisanal gold mining in Nigeria by working with the government, industry associations and obviously with our local partner.
How will your technology help artisanal miners in the short and the long term?
Our detectors help people to find gold more efficiently and more effectively, so you dig where you find a signal. And it means that people find gold more quickly and they find it safely. Not digging tunnels underground and bringing out ore for processing, as you find on the majority of mining sites around Africa. People down holes, 30, 40, 50 metres deep. Women at the top of the holes, dragging out the ore and processing the ore. With our detectors, you’re working from the top so you’re not going to have cave-ins and so forth.
And so you can use them to locate areas, prospective areas to find gold, once you find something you keep working, you can follow veins and so forth. We’ve got very sensitive ones that will allow you to, and this is something that we’ve developed in the last two-three years since we’ve increased the sensitivity of our detectors, you can find gold that is less than 0.1 gram, a tiny little nugget.
And when a miner finds a little nugget like that, he might not think it is too exciting but he does think, that is two or three days that I can feed and house my family and educate my children. And they can find that small stuff every day.
It used to be more about the life-changing nugget, you find a decent sized nugget and you can retire, but that’s now regarded as a lucky man’s machine. Now, we want something that will find us something every day so that it generates a livelihood. So, we see evidence all the time of what our detectors have actually done for communities.
You’ll go to a mining site near a village and then six months later, you’ll go back and you’ll see a new school or some new houses, two or three new businesses, shops, you see a new house of worship, a mosque, you see a new clinic. You see better fed children.
We often joke, how can you tell the miner on this site with the Minelab detector? Oh, he’s the fat one.” And he is, because they eat better and it’s better for the community because it creates that knock on effect.
And while it has some impact on the environment, it is not the same as large excavation machines and so forth that are used in other mining efforts. And also you don’t have to use those chemicals like mercury or cyanide to get the gold out of the ore. So it is relatively environmentally safe. It’s safe as far as the people are concerned, because they are not going down shafts that can collapse on them.
And the technology is easy to use and helps you to find gold efficiently and effectively. And given the low level of technology that’s used in Nigeria that we’ve seen, we think we can make a positive impact relatively quickly.
How important is after sales service for Minelab?
It’s never in our plan to just go into a country, sell detectors and get out of there. Because when someone buys a detector, it’s a business investment. And if they don’t have their detector working and if they don’t understand how to get the best performance out of it, well then it is not worth what they paid for it.
So, we go out and we train people, we train the end user, the miners, we train our dealers and their traders to train people. We help our dealers and distributors to set up service centres because we have up to three year warranties on our detectors. So, if they break down, we want people there that can fix them and provide that warranty support.
So, we’re there for the long haul. It makes commercial sense, but we also want to support our customers, that’s for sure.
You have been a longstanding partner of Nigeria Mining Week, how would you describe your experience?
We’ve been very impressed with the way Spintelligent/Clarion Events has managed the event and the efforts that people put in and also the efforts made to introduce us to others and get people meeting each other and giving us as much face time with people as possible. I’ve got to say, the exhibitions I’ve been involved in with Spintelligent/Clarion have been, I think, the best ones we do.
When we went in 2018 we actually got to go into the bush and spent a day there and this assuaged our security concerns. Minelab’s owner is an Australian stock exchange listed company and while our business is based on going to all kinds of weird and wonderful places around the world, our owners are extremely careful about looking after their staff. But we learnt that it is fine to go out in Nigeria.
Why the specific decision to join this year’s Digital Event?
It was an easy decision to do this, even though we’ve never been involved in a virtual conference like this one. We’ve been approached by others to do other conferences, but we could just see that the people who you’ve got involved, and we know from our history, about the connections and the respect that you have from the important people in the industry, we know we’re going to get some benefit out of it.
And we want to demonstrate our commitment to Nigeria by participating and hopefully assisting in the development of artisanal gold mining in Nigeria.
Has COVID-19 affected your operations?
The pandemic has affected our ability to travel and get to mining sites, meeting artisanal small-scale miners and understanding their requirements. However, we are working with an effective, capable and motivated Abuja-based distributor who is assisting us and supporting our efforts.
What we have found is that the artisanal mining industry is growing because of COVID’s impact on the African economies, which means there is less work in the formal sector currently and that people are turning to the more informal sector to earn a livelihood. Artisanal gold mining is becoming a much more reliable way of earning a living.