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Kropz’s COO – proving women can do a man’s job well

The mining industry has moved far beyond the space where women need to ‘cope’. In my experience, the mining industry attracts a certain type of personality, irrespective of gender.

My message to young woman looking to join the mining industry would be the same as for any other career – work hard, love what you do and don’t undersell your abilities.

About the author: Michelle Lawrence sits on the Board of Directors of Kropz Elandsfontein as COO, with responsibility for technical and operational functions, including the design and development of all mineral processing and related infrastructure.  She is an honours graduate in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town. She started her career in operations at Impala Platinum and rose through the ranks from graduate metallurgist to operations manager. She then worked as a process engineer for a number of engineering, procurement, construction management (EPCM) companies, including DRA International and Ausenco, before spending time in the mining corporate advisory space at Qinisele Resources.

I got involved in the mining industry by chance – you could say, mining found me.

I was awarded a few bursaries in high school and I chose to accept one from Anglo American to study chemical engineering, truly without an appreciation of what I was getting myself into.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 6 2018

I sometimes wonder what might have been different if I wasn’t so focused on getting an education to ensure my ‘independence’, but I’m quite happy to be where I am right now.

I am a woman and I am a chemical engineer and the CEO for emerging South African phosphate producer Kropz, which is currently developing the Elandsfontein phosphate mine near Saldanha Bay, on the West Coast.

A new view for mining

I believe in order to fully appreciate mining, you need to step back and see the bigger picture – how mining and minerals influence almost every aspect of our lives and the role the industry can play in sustainable economic development, if this role is responsibly executed.

Mining is the human activity that has been more disturbing to environment and is linked to large social impacts and inequalities.

Kropz highlights the importance of rising to both the technical and societal challenges of a mining project.

Kropz is aiming to become an African fertiliser producer and the Kropz Elandsfontein project is the first step towards achieving this – we are currently looking at further projects to deliver on our longer-term objective.

Elandsfontein is an expanse of almost 5 000 ha of agricultural land on the West Coast of South Africa. It contains the Elandsfontein phosphate deposit, the largest sedimentary phosphate deposit in South Africa.

It is most important to ensure that socially and environmentally responsible design decisions have been taken, that is driven by a desire to ensure that Kropz becomes a world-class model for the responsible mining and processing of fertiliser minerals.

I have been involved with Kropz’s Elandsfontein project since 2014. I recognised an opportunity to create a truly sustainable and meaningful operation from inception – one that could set a new standard for future mining projects.

In August 2017, the decision was made to suspend the commissioning of Elandsfontein. Kropz cited a ‘perfect storm’ of depressed phosphate prices, delays in the receipt of certain permits and a range of technical challenges as factors contributing to the decision.

The day we made the decision to delay the commissioning was most definitely the single, lowest point of my career.

However, having the opportunity to take this project forward to re-commissioning, to address the early challenges faced, and to still deliver on a world-class, sustainable operation that will provide long-term jobs for hundreds of people from the local communities is a privilege.

Addressing the challenges

Throughout the permitting process for Elandsfontein, Kropz has faced challenges in dealing with public concerns about environmental issues.

The public perception of mining, especially in the Western Cape, is largely negative but the world needs mining and South Africa needs to create employment, so mining must be carried out with due care.

We understand the importance of keeping our stakeholders informed – on the basis of scientific facts that are presented in comprehensible terms.

One of the early lessons I learned was the need to remove technical jargon so stakeholders really understand exactly what your intentions are.

Elandsfontein’s phosphate resource lies in an environmentally sensitive area, and full consideration for rehabilitation during and after mining has been applied throughout.

During the development of the project, more than R25 million was spent on expert, third-party specialist advice to ensure that all environmental issues were understood and mitigated through the design process.

In addition the mine’s impact on water was at the forefront of our concerns. The pit dewatering process was modelled and tested comprehensively before commissioning.

The conditions of the water use licence are onerous, but ensure that very careful monitoring of the ground water is in place.

We have now been pumping from the Elandsfontein Aquifer, and recharging the water downstream, for more than a year.

The results collected through the water monitoring programme show that there is no negative impact on the ground water resources in the area.

Kropz is working closely with the Department of Water and Sanitation, local farmers, and a number of ground water specialists, to ensure that we develop and enhance our understanding of the Elandsfontein Aquifer system.

The dewatering and recharge process is definitely one of the highlights of the project.

Kropz and Elandsfontein have also had to work closely with the local community to understand and address its needs and concerns.

We initiate regular, transparent communication, providing project updates at public meetings for example. And participating in the multi-stakeholder Elandsfontein Water Monitoring Committee, of which we are founding members.

We welcome robust discussion and feedback, provided this isn’t based on narrow, sectoral interests, or deliberate misinterpretation of the information we provide.

I truly believe that Elandsfontein will stand as a model for sustainable mining well into the future and will impact positively on the local community; further, that Kropz has the potential to benefit the agri sector in South Africa and in the longer term, agriculture on the African continent as a whole.

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