The DRC holds a lot of hope, Richard Robinson tells Leon Louw.
Alphamin Resources’ Bisie tin project in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will start producing ore this year. Bisie is one of the highest-grade tin mines in the world. The mine is located in an extremely volatile region of the DRC, and the team had to negotiate with artisanal miners, community interest groups, rebel forces, and soldiers from the DRC and a number of neigbouring African countries to establish the mine. Bisie is a good case study of how to bring a mine, situated in a fragile state, into production. Richard Robinson, managing director of Alphamin Bisie Mining, handled the social and community issues and did a sterling job in ensuring the sustainability of the project.
When African Mining first visited the Bisie project towards the end of 2017, I interviewed Robinson to find out how exactly the team pulled off such a major feat. More than a year later, the story still makes for fascinating reading.
Richard, you have an interesting history and as I understand, you were born in the DRC?
Yes, that’s right, but I am an American citizen. My parents were American, and they settled in the DRC. I was born in the mining region of Katanga in the south of the Congo and spent most of my childhood there. I also lived and studied in the US and in a number of other countries before briefly returning to the DRC in 1997.In addition, I spent a number of years in South Africa working on postdoctoral studies until I returned home for good in 2003 to do economic development work in Katanga.
The NGO that I was working for, partnered with some of the first pioneering mining companies in Katanga, like Anvel, First Quantum, and Tenke Mining. Tenke made me an offer and I worked for them for about three years before being recruited by the US Agency for International Development, which deals with conflict minerals. I met Boris Kamstra, CEO at Bisie, in 2012 and started working on the project soon after.
What did you know about the project then?
Well, I knew it was a honeypot of surface-level cassiterite, which created enormous issues relating to conflict minerals. At one stage, there were about 18 different taxes collected by different entities and armed groups. The armed groups were heavily involved in mining.
Do you know how many armed groups were involved?
There were probably about five armed groups. There were also 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.
So, what you are saying is that there were certain groups who used artisanal miners to make money?
Yes, they 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.
You initially didn’t want to be part of the Bisie project; what changed your mind?
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 as a result 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. I also realised that Alphamin had a team that really understood how to manage risks and turn things around.
How difficult was it to manage the artisanal problem and what were the challenges?
When we started, it was already becoming more 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 today.
However, even these small numbers still have their networks that are linked with armed groups. They have corrupted the police, and it is possible that they can corrupt the army. They are also supported by political and financial interest in Kinshasa, Goma, and Kigali in Rwanda. We had to handle all these issues very carefully and the solutions were a collaboration of like-minded people who have a common interest to clean up the mining sector.
Is it true that you were detained?
I was detained by the National Anti-Fraud Commission, but never formally arrested and charged. They questioned me about our sample exports, which is what you do when you do exploration. We exported about 30 tonnes of exploration samples, which they accused us of selling for commercial gain. We suspect that the artisanal mining interests were behind the information that resulted in me being detained. Nevertheless, we now work with the same Anti-Fraud Commission. They are serious about detecting fraud and play an important role in addressing corruption and fraud in the area of our operation.
How does politics in the DRC really affect local communities and projects like yours?
Politics affects all stakeholders. If there is a lack of certainty about the political situation, it means nobody makes decisions. If we are constantly being harassed and government fails to pay back tax reimbursements, for example, it affects operations significantly.
What is the significance of this project, first of all for the country and for this area in particular?
It has huge significance for the country and region. Bisie will demonstrate 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.
Has the national government shown a lot of interest in the project?
They have, but at times artisanal groups or other competitors have been able to influence the national government, which created new risks for us. They have supported the Anti-Fraud Commission’s effort, though. The provincial government is a lot closer to the ground. The provincial governor created an official committee that involves 27 provincial ministers and their role is to see how they can support us. For example, if we are building a school, to make sure that the teachers are paid; it is as simple as that.
Does Rwanda still play a role in the eastern DRC?
Oh yes. Rwanda has a big influence throughout the eastern parts of the DRC. At this point, it is primarily economic through their investments or through business people who are either Rwandan or have Rwandan links.
What would your advice be for investors looking to do business in the eastern DRC?
It is critical that any investment enjoys local support and community buy-in. That means the project has a firewall of people around to protect it; that is critical. You need to be respectful and humble and understand the local and national actors and interests at play. That doesn’t mean you have to bribe anyone. It is possible to operate here by following the highest business standards in the world, although it won’t always be fair because you are playing at different rules than some other people who bribe their way to the top. You need to be well informed on the risks, the competitors, and their strategies so that you can develop counter-strategies.
You need to partner with local Congolese who aren’t just self-interested but who see the bigger picture and can give good advice. There are 320 different tribal identities in this country, and it is easy to favour one community over another. Be conscious of that and work with local people.
Although it is risky to invest in these parts of the DRC, these risks can be managed, analysed, and mitigated. Then you might just find that the investment is a lot more enticing and secure than in South Africa or Tanzania, for example.
What are the major risks in the DRC?
Political risk, security risk, and infrastructure risk.
What is your feeling about the Congo for the next three to five years?
It can only get better. We have reached a threshold of limited governance and problems and in the long term, things will improve. That is certainly what the Congolese people want, and they deserve it. This project gives a lot of good people hope that things can improve as the Katanga success stories have proven.