Lauren Davidson: waiting for the tide to turn

2019-02-27T14:13:53+00:00 February 27th, 2019|In Conversation With|

By Leon Louw

Namibia offers potential investors in the mining sector a range of opportunities, says Lauren Davidson, economist at the Namibian Chamber of Mines.

Lauren Davidson, economist at the Namibian Chamber of Mines.

Lauren Davidson, economist at the Namibian Chamber of Mines. Image credit: Namibian Chamber of Mines

Lauren, the Namibian Chamber of Mines was established in 1969. Tell us more about the organisation.

The organisation has evolved from a one-man team to one that currently consists of seven staff members. The Chamber was established not only to protect, encourage, and promote the mining sector on behalf of its stakeholders and members, but also to benefit and protect Namibian communities. One of our primary roles is to act as an intermediary between the government and the private sector.

We represent the industry on various issues but are mostly concerned with ensuring that the regulatory and policy environment is conducive for investment in the mining sector. One of the Chamber’s other goals is to make sure that the mining industry continues expanding. On the other hand, we also have to ensure that development takes place according to best practise and that it benefits the local economy. Our subcommittees deal with issues such as health and safety management. Likewise, we have an exploration committee, human resource committee, and more recently, we have established a committee dealing with the environmental issues and management thereof.

Which companies does the Chamber represent?

We represent all of the major operations in Namibia. These fall under class A members. The Class B category consists of medium-sized operating mines and companies, and Class C, the smaller companies. The Class D category caters specifically for exploration companies, while Associate members are mostly made up of service providers to the industry.

The uranium price has been in the doldrums for the past seven to eight years. As we know, Namibia’s biggest mines are uranium operations. How are these operations doing?

All the uranium mines have been seriously affected by the uranium price, with the Langer Heinrich operation being placed on care and maintenance last year. However, Namibia has been lucky with the development of the mega Husab uranium mine, which is owned by Swakop Uranium, which in turn is owned by a Chinese state-owned nuclear fuel company, so the entity will be using uranium to fuel their own reactors and have thus far been insensitive to the depressed market. I also think we are slowly starting to see a bit of a rebound in the uranium prices. Recent supply disruptions in the broader market are expected to improve the uranium price, although there is still major uncertainty with regard to timing.

But Namibia is not only about diamonds and uranium; there are other significant mines that have started production recently?   

Yes, the two most notable new developments have been B2Gold’s Otjikoto gold mine, that came online in 2015, and since it started operating at full capacity, has trebled Namibia’s gold output. The other project is Weatherly International’s Tchudi copper mine.

One of our recent members, Desert Lion Energy, sold its first shipment of lithium last year and although they ran into difficulties, the company is raising financing to develop their lithium assets in Namibia.

Currently, there are also some exciting developments taking place in the industry with the re-opening of two old mines. The Namib Lead and Zinc Mine near Swakopmund is set to enter production early in 2019. The Uis tin mine is being re-opened by a new investor, thereby breathing new life into the otherwise economically depressed community. In addition, the new cement plant at Whale Rock Cement is completed and has commenced with the mining of limestone and cement production.

The interest in battery minerals is growing and Namibia seems to be well positioned to take advantage of the growing demand?

Yes, there has definitely been an uptick in exploration expenditure in Namibia, and it has largely been driven by demand for battery minerals. One of the major recent discoveries is a cobalt deposit in the Kunene region close to Opuwo. The project is a joint venture between a local mining and exploration company, Gecko, and Celsius Resources. They are currently running an extensive drilling programme, which has so far yielded promising results, and are in the process of compiling a JORC-compliant maiden resource.

Do you know how many exploration companies are active in Namibia?

There are around 15 active exploration companies that are members of the Chamber, but there are a number of other smaller companies that are not members of the Chamber.

Do you know of exploration companies that are looking for more gold or copper deposits?

Canadian company Osino Resources is busy with an extensive drilling programme for gold in the northern parts of Namibia. Deep South, an Australian exploration company, is doing extensive exploration on the Haib copper project, while Kalahari Copper is also doing a lot of exploration on the border to Botswana.

In neighbouring South Africa, exploration activity has almost dried up. Why is Namibia so attractive to new exploration companies? Is it easy to enter as an exploration company?

Namibia has always been one of the more sought-after African countries in terms of investment into mining. Namibia is a politically stable country, and it has a robust constitution and a working legal system and judiciary. In comparison to other African countries, the infrastructure (especially the roads and the ports) is world-class. The regulatory framework makes Namibia one of the top mining destinations in Africa.

Unfortunately, in the past three years or so, we have lost some of that attractiveness due to proposed policies and legislation that are restrictive and not conducive to investment.

One of the most contentious issues affecting the exploration subsector has finally been resolved. In October 2018, the minister of mines and energy dropped Additional Conditions to exploration licences, which posed serious challenges in their implementation. This has removed one of the main barriers to investment in exploration.

Has this affected companies operating in the country?

It has affected the ability to proceed with projects, especially in exploration. However, with the removal of Additional Conditions to licences for exploration companies, we anticipate this will no longer be a barrier for investment into new exploration projects.

What is your view on the uranium price?

Namibia has five prominent uranium exploration projects that have advanced into the feasibility stages. To enable them to start developing these projects, a price of around USD65 is required for them to be profitable. Currently, the price is trading at about a third of that. Fortunately, however, positive supply shocks in 2017 and 2018 resulted in a 27% rebound in the price last year. Supply shocks in the market and an anticipated increase in global energy demand indicate that the uranium price is bound to pick up again. It is just a matter of when this will happen.

What are the major challenges and the major opportunities for mining companies in Namibia?

Water is a big challenge for mines in Namibia. The country is a water-scarce region and the mines in the central and southern parts struggle with water availability. In Windhoek, there are water restrictions and sometimes water cuts, which affects central mines, as many of them draw water from the same source.

The other challenge in terms of infrastructure is the rail network. Namibia has brilliant ports and roads, but the railroads are in urgent need of refurbishment and upgrading to accommodate the kinds of volumes that are required by the growing mining sector. That is certainly one of Namibia’s major challenges. It impacts mines particularly in the central and northern regions.

The Port of Walvis Bay is world class. There is a new container terminal and the authorities are expanding to the north. The plan is to create a logistics hub for the SADC region, which is a great development, as the country’s infrastructure is strategically linked to neighbouring countries and to other transport corridors. Although Walvis Bay is one of the best ports in Africa, the rail infrastructure cannot support the port infrastructure at the moment, given this massive expansion.

What about electricity?

Most mines draw electricity from the national grid. A few remote mines generate their own electricity or use generator sets. Namibia purchases more than 50% of its power from the South African power utility Eskom, which is a risk over the long term given the continuous challenges the entity faces.

What is your outlook for the Namibian mining industry?

Generally, very positive. We expect exploration to continue increasing in the next few years. This will be driven by increasing demand for battery minerals across the globe. In addition, we are upbeat about what is happening now, especially in the uranium market, as a price rebound will bring new projects into development.