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Trust and trade-offs vital in remote DRC

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When Alphamin ventured into North Kivu for the first time in 2017, there were more than 15 000 artisanal miners on the Bisie hill. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica.

Trust and trade-offs vital in remote DRC

The development of TSX listed Alphamin’s Bisie tin mine over the last five years had a significant impact on the social dynamics in and around Walikale in the North Kivu province of the DRC.

By Leon Louw founder and editor of WhyAfrica   

Before Alphamin’s prolific Mpama North mine was built on the Bisie Hill in 2018 the only viable economic activities in the extremely remote village of Walikale were artisanal mining and the illegal smuggling of what is today recognised as conflict minerals (tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold).

Gaining access to the mining site necessitated a 38km long road through virgin bush. The road was built over the next two years by recruiting more than 600 locals who hacked a path through almost impenetrable dense jungle.

That was the first of Alphamin’s trickle down economic activities in Walikale. Thereafter, the team had to address more complex environmental and social issues and did so through building solid relationships with host communities built on collaboration and mitigating as much of its environmental footprint as possible.

Development in a volatile region

The Bisie complex and its Mpama North and Mpama South deposits are located in an extremely volatile region of the DRC. When Alphamin initially started developing the mine they had to negotiate with artisanal miners, community interest groups, rebel forces, soldiers from the DRC, and several neigbouring African countries. These negotiations are ongoing and relationships with unrelated, and often hostile groups, need to be nurtured continuously.

It is critical that any investment enjoys local support and community buy-in. That means that the project has a firewall of people around to protect it, which is critical in an area where security has always been a major risk.

Nevertheless, Alphamin has shown that it is possible to operate efficiently in an extremely fragile environment by following sound business practices. From the very start the team was well- informed about the risks, the competitors, and their strategies, which enabled them to develop counter strategies.

In the process they have partnered and empowered local Congolese without favouring one group over the other. There are 320 different tribal identities in the country and having all the benefits accruing to one, is risky. Alphamin had to manage, analyse, and mitigated these risks.

Trust builds peace and stability   

Alphamin has built credibility and trust among rival groups in the area and has been one of the primary reasons why some form of peace and stability has returned specifically to the Walikale region, although the eastern part of the DRC and specifically the North Kivu province remain a quagmire of instability.

Bisie is an excellent case study of how to bring a mine, situated in a fragile state, into production. At the same time its early strategies in dealing with the community challenges and security issues, ensured the project’s long-term sustainability.

When Alphamin ventured into North Kivu for the first time in 2017, there were about five different armed groups running amok in the province. They were allegedly corrupt elements in the Congolese security services and the DRC army. All these groups supported different artisanal miners. At that stage, there were close to 15 000 artisanal miners on the Bisie hill.

These groups financed and protected certain artisanal groups and then taxed them. That was an important source of revenue for these people and is what led to people lobbying for conflict-free minerals in this area. Alphamin put in a lot of effort to proclaim the area a mineral-conflict-free zone.

As a result, the security dynamics in this part of the DRC improved. The United Nations and South African peacekeeping force ended the Rwandan-backed invasion in 2012 and 2013. At the same time, the governance of the mining sector in the eastern part of the DRC improved, mostly because of the introduction of Dodd Frank.

Dodd Frank sent a clear message to the authorities that if they do not clean up this sector, the world would not buy their minerals. The government then decided to embrace conflict-free traceability and due diligence.

When Alphamin started to mine the beast at Mpama North, it was already becoming difficult for the artisanal miners to get to the ore body. The number of artisanal miners dropped significantly from between 10 000 and 15 000 in 2008 to about 400 in 2018. Today, many of these miner’s form part of Alphamin’s workforce and are permanently employed by the mine. Although there are still isolated cases of artisanal mining, their impacts are insignificant.

Bisie’s development of huge significance     

Alphamin’s Bisie complex has huge significance for the country and region. The Mpama North mine ( and hopefully Mpama South in the future) has demonstrated that the DRC can support the mining sector in a fragile part of the country characterised by weak governance and a lot of conflict since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and even before that. This project has the potential to stabilise and reinforce peace and to promote development.

It is critical for the communities in the Walikale area, and for the country in general, that Bisie continues delivering the goods, and that they continue doing it for a long time.

The recent announcement that development of the Mpama South deposit is imminent was thus well received by local Alphamin employees and community members. Alphamin expects Mpama South to start producing tin in late 2023.

Work to develop the company’s second big deposit at Bisie is gathering momentum. Mpama South has long been punted by geologist as another significant ore body in similar vein to Mpama North, the exceptionally high-grade deposits that Alphamin has been mining at Bisie until now.

Mpama North is a world phenomenon and with an average grade of almost 4% a rare occurrence in the tin mining industry. What Alphamin achieved at Bisie, is a story not told often enough. But the story has not come to an end. In fact, with the discovery of the Mpama South’s ore body, Alphamin has added at least another 20 plus years to this riveting Bisie chapter.

Furthermore, by developing Mpama South, Alphamin will cement its position as one of the largest tin producers in the world. While global tin mines have struggled over the last year, Alphamin’s growth trajectory has continued. Mpama North, the only deposit in a cluster of scattered tin occurrences across the Bisie Hill that has, until now, actively been mined, already produces more than 4% of the world’s tin. Combining production from Mpama North and Mpama South will put Bisie almost in a league of its own.

Alphamin predicts that when the ore from these two deposits are combined, the Bisie complex will produce more than 20,000 tons (t) of tin-in-concentrate annually from 2024. According to the International Tin Association (ITA), the rapid development of Mpama South will help to narrow the forecast deficits in the tin market over the next decade.

The opportunity to take advantage of the current shortfall in tin concentrate supply and the ability of Alphamin to self-fund the projects, played a critical role in the decision to develop Mpama South over the next 20 months. At full capacity, the mine is forecast to produce some 7,232t of tin-in-concentrate annually.

Pioneering community empowerment

This all bodes well for the local communities of Walikale, who has already benefitted immensely from various social and development programmes.

Mining is by nature a pioneering industry. To build and operate a large-scale modern mine requires infrastructure, including roads, telecommunications, banking and more. Most of this infrastructure is available to the host communities around the mine and those along the logistics lines.

The Mpama North mine has brought cellular phone connectivity to the mine and surrounding community. Related small businesses are booming as a result, security and governance in the area have also improved. Alphamin sources from local suppliers where they can, maximising the positive economic impact the mine is having on the Walikale territory and North Kivu Province.

Alphamin is an economic catalyst for North Kivu. Mpama North is proof that large-scale formal businesses can operate in North Kivu and at the same time empower local communities. People in the Walikale Territory have experienced stability, improved infrastructure, education, business opportunities and economic growth since the mine started mining Bisie Hill.

Furthermore, the chances are good that Walikale and its people will continue enjoying the fruits of Alphamin’s labour. In the much talked about energy transition tin remains in demand. A switch from energy delivered via a pipe to energy delivered via a cable will require increasing volumes of tin to join it all up.

This will be supported in the medium term by the adoption of 5G networks and the Internet of Things. Beyond that, there’s potential for tin to be added to silicon in the graphite used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries to slow degradation. tin is also cited as offering strong potential in combination with other metals for cathodes in both ‘wet’ battery technologies and solid-state batteries.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in the extraction and responsible utilisation of natural resources, the primary sector of African economies and Africa’s political economy. 

WhyAfrica reports about, and publishes newsletters, magazines and research reports about natural resources and the primary sectors of African economies, and the infrastructure, equipment and engineering methods needed to extract and utilise these resources in an efficient, responsible, sustainable, ethic and environmentally friendly way, so that it will benefit the people of Africa.

Furthermore, WhyAfrica promotes Africa as an investment and travel destination, analyses the continent’s business environment and investment opportunities, and reports on how the political economy of African countries affects its development.         

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021.

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