Anthony Viljoen: hunting tin elephants

2018-07-12T11:29:38+00:00 July 12th, 2018|In the stope|

With a tin deficit looming, Anthony Viljoen and his team of geologists are scouring the African continent for good tin deposits, writes Leon Louw.

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Anthony Viljoen, CEO at AfriTin. Image credit: AfriTin

Anthony, AfriTin Mining was admitted to the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange in November 2017. What is the thinking behind the establishment of the company?

AfriTin owns two near production tin assets: the flagship Uis Mine in Namibia, and the Mokopane tin project in the Limpopo province of South Africa. At Mokopane, we have drilled out the Zaaiplaats and the Groenfontein targets. At one stage, Zaaiplaats was the second-largest tin mine in South Africa. Uis is a historical mine that was operated by the then government-owned steel producer Iscor, today known as Arcelor Mittal.

From the start, the idea was to incubate a diverse tin portfolio in Bushveld Minerals; that way we would gain a critical mass of tin resource inventory that would be able to stand on its own It is not easy to achieve scale with a mineral like tin, but we managed it through the acquisition of the former Uis mining area. At the same time, we want to expand our footprint in the region and the continent as a whole across the various tin regions, such as in the DRC, for example, where Alphamin has now developed the Bisie project, or in Nigeria, which, in colonial times, was the fourth-largest exporter of tin in the world. Tin was produced on a large scale in the Bushveld region in South Africa as well, and we maintain that despite its rich mining history, South Africa remains massively underexplored. But for South Africa to realise this opportunity, there needs to be a more conducive investment climate for high-risk exploration ventures.

Ultimately, you did focus on southern Africa. Are there significant tin deposits to be found in the SADC region?

Yes, we did, but it does not mean that we are not considering other tin geologies in Africa, too. Southern Africa remains attractive, however, because of the good infrastructure. And the region hosts a few good tin deposits. There are prospects in Mozambique; in fact, there is a new greenfields project being developed in Mozambique, and the old Kamativi tin workings in Zimbabwe, which is earmarked to be re-mined for its lithium. But in our view, the Damara region in Namibia holds a lot of potential. These pegmatite-hosted deposits have almost been forgotten. We relooked some of them and decided to acquire the mining rights for the historic Uis tin mine, which presented the largest concentration of tin mineralisation north-east of the coastal town of Swakopmund.

Does the area have several occurrences?

Geologically, the Damara region consists of several pegmatite belts, which stretch for about 200km from Swakopmund in a north-easterly direction into the Brandberg/Spitskoppe area of Damaraland. There are a number of interesting mineral occurrences within the pegmatites, including lithium, tin, tantalite, niobium, and more.

Uis has been mined for tin before. Is there enough tin left to make it viable?

Yes definitely. In the 1970s, Uis was recognised as the largest hard rock tin mine in the world. It was owned by Iscor and mined for many years. According to the old Iscor mine plan produced by SRK just before closure in 1985, the deposit could produce enough tin to remain viable up to about 2063, so there is still a lot of tin left. But then there was a sudden drop in the tin price and with a new political dispensation in the 1980s, it became uneconomical for Iscor to continue mining at Uis.

What is the progression of the operation?    

We plan to ramp up the mine in various stages. AfriTin has already set up a small pilot plant (box sampling testing plant) and will soon move into constructing an intermediary plant. The mine hosts a fair amount of lithium and tantalite that have not been extracted before, so we hope to gain economic credits from those two minerals over time as well.

To my knowledge, Iscor mined the deposit from two shallow open pits; will you continue mining those pits? 

Yes, that is correct. The two pits (V1 and V2) historically provided about 40–50% of the resource. Iscor pre-stripped the pits, so we will initially be working on a very low stripping ratio. AfriTin will basically just continue mining the existing open pits and outcropping pegmatites.

The geology is coarse rock. When the pegmatites formed, there were a number of intrusions from different minerals, most of it cassiterite, though. There are different ways of extracting economic value, so we will look to do a lot of work on the metallurgy.

But tin will remain our focus. Economically, it is a good model. At the moment, the tin price is relatively high, and indications are that there will be a continuing deficit in the market and we would expect the tin price to react to that.

Does tin have a future?

Tin is increasingly being used in electrical equipment and modern technology like electric vehicles and touchscreens. Tin replaced lead in most applications and there has been a clear upswing in demand for tin. No big tin projects are coming online in the foreseeable future. Some of the older mines are running out of ore and grade, there are environmental issues at some of the old tin workings in other places in the world, and there is a looming deficit. Tin is a versatile metal with a multitude of applications.

Is it easy to liberate the tin?

Because the tin at Uis occurs in such coarse rock, it is easy to get a good liberation. Iscor, for instance, was getting up to 80% recoveries, which is why the old dumps are largely barren of mineralisation. The metallurgy is not complex like vanadium, for example, which requires a complex process and a lot of power. Liberating the tin is easier; it requires a pure gravity separation process. Though, gravity separation has come a long way since the Iscor days when they used only jigs and tables. Our plant will only be half the size of what the Iscor plant was in terms of throughput, but we will focus on pre-concentration; in other words, on efficient crushing, dense media separation, spirals, and tables.

Compared to other tin project in Africa, your project seems straightforward in terms of access to good infrastructure, but the grade might not be that high. Would you agree?  

Walvis Bay is about 200km from site, on good roads. We will only be moving a few containers a month and there are no issues with security, like in the DRC. We have easy access to electricity and water, although the mine is in a water-scarce region. The grade at Uis might not be as high as at Bisie (where it is close to 4%), but our proximity to port, good roads, and other mining-related infrastructure make Uis a very attractive investment.

We are confident that we have a good deposit. There are huge resources and outcrops left. Historical data indicate there were 70 million tonnes of ore grading at 0.136% over the entire area. AfriTin will be identifying the higher-grade zones and mine those initially, and over time, we would settle on an optimised feed grade and tonnage for the plant. There might even be as much as 100 000 tonnes of tin left, which makes it one of the top 10 tin mines in the world. Moreover, it is an opencast mine, which I prefer. The question is always, where will you mine? A rich deposit underground or a lower-grade deposit on surface? For me, opencast mining is always a better option. Grade on a massive scale like we have can always be managed.

When will you start and what do you still have to do?

All our environmental permits and mining licences are already in place, so we need to get into the pit, construct a plant, and start blasting. Most of the crushing circuit has been procured and will be on site in the coming months. The crushing circuit includes a big jaw crusher and a four-stage cone crusher. From there, the material will report to screens and then enter the dense medium separation (DMS) circuit. Ninety-five per cent of what we produce will fall within the 5mm or 6mm fraction. A spiral circuit will be added at a later stage, followed by shaking tables for the finer material.

What mining method will you use?

It is a simple open-pit truck-and-shovel mining method, which means blasting, excavating, and hauling. Initially, we will be mining about half a million tonnes per year. It is a relatively small operation in comparison to an iron ore or coal operation, but tin is a much higher-value commodity. The plant is close to the open pits, so it does not involve a long haulage distance and cost. It is a relatively straightforward mining operation. There will be no underground mining; we want to start mining and get a return as soon as possible.

Will you always remain an exploration company?

Mark Bristow said you do not build mining companies on other people’s mines — you build mining companies from exploration. We come from a strong geological and prospecting background and concur with Mark on this philosophy, so we will always have a strong geological focus. That is how Mark grew Randgold. We are focused on building deposits around new discoveries, and we will continue doing that.

That is a space not many play in and mostly because of financing? How did you overcome this constraint? What will your advice be to other African entrepreneurs?

Simple: we listed in London. Unfortunately, no risk capital is available in Africa. To do exploration work, a company needs access to capital, and risk capital comes at a premium — in the form of equity, usually. Johannesburg, after all, was built on risk capital. Its genesis was a junior mining gold rush. Ernest Oppenheimer started Anglo American in South Africa, but he got his capital from England and America, hence the name of his company. You have to go where the capital is, and governments in Africa have to create investor-friendly environments so that the capital can be brought back home. Fortune Mojapelo (my business partner) and I have listed all our companies in mining capital jurisdictions such as Australia (Lemur Resources) and London (Bushveld Minerals and AfriTin Mining) and now we are beginning to attract capital, given our past successful endeavours.

We see ourselves as the next generation of mining entrepreneurs. My advice to other mining entrepreneurs in Africa? You only have one choice: you need to seek quality projects and get out there and hunt capital. Go to Canada, London, Australia; that is where you will find your money. Unfortunately, South African fund managers mostly seek yield on their investments, so they will all look for producing assets rather than support an exploration industry, even though Africa, and South Africa in particular, is largely underexplored.