Explosives company BME, a subsidiary of Omnia Holdings Limited, has been active in West Africa for the past decade. After the south and southern African region that region is the continent’s biggest focal point for new mining projects, based on BME’s internal assessments.
Ralf Hennecke, BME general manager of international marketing notes that for many, West Africa is seen as a difficult place to do business. “It is just a bit more extreme than other places. The climate, the dust, the heat, the remoteness. And, in particular, West Africa is logistically challenging.
“However, five years ago it was harder to do business in West Africa. It has since improved, and a great deal of infrastructural development is underway. That bodes well for the continued expansion in the region’s mining and exploration activity.” About 35% of BME’s business is sourced in Africa beyond South Africa’s borders; of this West Africa accounts for about half.
“We are seeing massive mining whereas in the past we saw small scale mining, and we have seen the economic effects of this, including job creation. That has made it easier to do business in the region. In addition, many of the countries there are very peaceful.”
Hennecke predicts that the market for explosives in Africa, due to the mining sector, will double in the next five years, and almost half of this doubling will be due to activity in West Africa.
BME provides what Hennecke terms the mine to mill concept, and its activities in West Africa include a full blasting service as well as a down-the-hole service. “We range from trading in blasting products to offering real technical solutions.” At one of the mines it serves in West Africa BME has undertaken work to control fragmentation which has improved mill throughput.
Breaking it down by commodity Hennecke identifies bauxite in Guinea, iron ore in Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania and Niger’s uranium deposits as key main areas of activity by the mining sector in West Africa. This is obviously in addition to West Africa’s world famous gold mining and exploration sector that is extending its reach across many of the region’s countries.
“We have offices in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, and our infrastructure involves mine dedicated emulsion facilities,” Hennecke says. “While it is easy to transport the oxidiser, the ammonium nitrate, and maintain it on site, the unavailability of road transport tankers because of the remoteness necessitates having the emulsion facilities on site.”
BME has modular facilities, which can be easily moved from one place to another, and it enabled the company to set itself up at a new mine in Mali within a week.
The scarcity of shipping is an issue all suppliers to mines and projects in West Africa have to cope with, but it is exacerbated for explosives companies. It affects the transport of ammonium nitrate, which even when it is not classified as an explosive is classified as a hazardous material. These challenges mean that the cost of logistics is 100% higher than in South Africa. A contributor to this cost is the fact that it sometimes takes three to four months to get the material to its destination and this affects the stockholdings required. The necessity of keeping six to eight months of buffer stocks to ensure the mine keeps on running is expensive.
“Above all else the mines are looking for reliability and competitiveness in their explosive supplier – that is their primary criterion when they make their choice,” Hennecke says.
BME has contracts with five mines in the region, these being open cast operations as is typical of West Africa at this stage. Tony Rorke, BME director of blasting technology notes that West African operations tend not to use electronic detonators to improve the quality of the blast as they mostly mine in soft rock, but as they do progress into harder rock they will start to see the benefits of such technology.
A technological feature unique to BME is its utilisation of used oil from mobile mining equipment to produce its explosive emulsions. This also helps the mines get rid of a pollutant that is hard to dispose of. The manufacture of explosives using this material has worked well and has proven to be an advantage to the company and its clients in West Africa’s remote mining sites.
Over the years the expertise BME has built up in West Africa includes strong local support structures. “The key, the secret to success, in operating in the region is ensuring you establish relationships with the local communities and governments. We have been successful in developing local skills due to the peoples’ willingness to gain knowledge in what is a specialised field. This is part of our competitive edge.” BME employs some 100 to 120 people in the West African region, including chemistry, mining, engineering, procurement and administration skills. BME uses expatriates to train locals who after one or two years are in the position to do the job themselves.
Hennecke does however say that West Africa will not avoid the skills shortage and in a specialised field such as explosives it is a struggle to find and retain skilled people.
He says BME has introduced world class blasting technology to West Africa and has also contributed to social responsibility undertakings, some in assistance of mining company initiatives and some in its own right.