Alphamin Resources can be well pleased with 2017. It is the year in which its Bisie tin project finally made substantial progress – much to the surprise of many in the mining and investment community who thought that the challenges of developing the orebody, located in a remote and inaccessible area of the politically unstable DRC, would prove too much for the TSX-V-listed junior, which now also has a secondary listing on the JSE’s Alt-X. Modern Mining’s Arthur Tassell recently visited Bisie and was highly impressed by the progress being made on the project and the evident esprit de corps of the Alphamin personnel on site.
The sceptics clearly did not take into account the determination of the Alphamin team, led by CEO Boris Kamstra, to bring into production the world’s richest tin deposit, no matter the obstacles involved. The team has now achieved the near impossible, with reliable access to Bisie established, an underground mine under development and work about to start on the erection of the process plant. The rate of progress is such that the processing facility should be fully commissioned by the first quarter of 2019 with full commercial production being achieved towards the end of 2019.
The media party which recently visited Bisie about to enter the mine.
Bisie, of course, has been well-publicised (in no small measure due to Kamstra, whose marketing of the project has been compelling) and most readers will know by now that not only is it the richest tin deposit in the world but the richest by far, with a grade (4,5 % for the overall resource though somewhat less for the reserve) that far exceeds anything else around – either in Africa or elsewhere.
As Kamstra says, “In the world of tin, an orebody with a grade of 1 % would be regarded as a stellar deposit. We have four-and-half-times this. Some of the intersections during our drilling programme – and we’ve drilled about 40 km of diamond drill holes – were so astonishing that we were forced to review our results on occasion. But there were no mistakes. The Bisie deposit is a genuine phenomenon. Putting it into perspective, it’s roughly equivalent to a gold deposit grading 22 to 24 g/t.
“It’s worth adding that it is also the second biggest deposit in the world in terms of contained tin. It could be bigger still if we continued drilling but we’ve already defined a resource of just over 230 000 tonnes of tin, most of it in the measured and indicated categories, which is sufficient to support a mine producing 9 600 tonnes of tin in concentrate a year over a 12,5-year mine life. Further drilling at this point is wholly unnecessary. The deposit we’re exploiting – Mpama North – continues at depth, so the likelihood is that the projected mine life can easily be extended.”
The question mark that has always hung over Bisie is whether the size and quality of the Mpama North deposit is sufficient to offset both the remote location of Bisie (and the associated logistical problems) and the general political instability that afflicts North Kivu Province in the east of the country where Bisie is located.
The answer to the first question is that Alphamin has largely solved the logistical issues. Bisie is located 180 km west of Goma on Lake Kivu in the depths of the equatorial Walikale Forest, around 38 km from the Goma-Kisangani road, and is indeed difficult to access. Alphamin has, however, built a serviceable road to the mine site – an achievement which can only really be appreciated by those who have seen for themselves the Walikale area – which is already negotiable by 4WD vehicles and which is undergoing further improvement.
Says Kamstra: “With the access road in place the worst of our problems are behind us. Previously, the only way in to Bisie was on foot or by helicopter. We can now get vehicles through to the mine site from centres such as Johannesburg or the ports of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa within a reasonable timeframe. There are still issues with the condition of the main road between Goma and Walikale but attention is being given to this – by ourselves and other parties – and there are, in any event, alternative, though longer, routes that can be used. Overall, we’re confident that we have mastered – and correctly costed in – the logistics of the project.”
On the second point, the perceived instability of North Kivu Province, Kamstra is equally confident. “There was a time when our part of North Kivu was unstable but this was largely a result of artisanal mining at Bisie which attracted the attention of various militia groups,” he says. “But the artisanal miners are now largely gone – for a variety of reasons – and it’s been several years since we last had a major security issue at the site.
“We have excellent security on the mine, including a contingent of Congolese mine police, and we enjoy the full backing of the national and provincial authorities. We’ve also set up an extremely efficient intelligence network designed to give us early warning of any incursions into our area. We don’t downplay security concerns but we believe they are manageable and unlikely – though there are obviously no guarantees – to pose a real threat to the project. North Kivu now is very different from what it was 10 years ago – the narrative that it is unstable is very outdated.”
Modern Mining recently visited Bisie as part of a small media contingent and can confirm that the area appeared totally peaceful. Since that visit, there has been one major security incident in North Kivu involving an attack on UN peacekeepers but that was much further to the north-east in the province and has had absolutely zero impact on activities at Bisie.
Certainly, Alphamin’s contention that North Kivu is open for business has received support from the investment community. The company recently secured a US$80 million credit facility for the construction of the mine from a syndicate of lenders – comprising its major shareholder, Tremont Holdings, as well as Sprott Private Resource Lending and Barak Fund SPC – which has taken it within striking distance of meeting all its funding requirements for the project. As this article was being written, the balance of funding required was in the process of being raised via share placements in Johannesburg and Toronto.
To develop Bisie, Kamstra has put together a team which he believes is one of the best ever assembled to build a mine in Africa. Its members include Trevor Faber, Alphamin’s COO, who is mainly based on site, and Richard Robinson, the MD of Alphamin’s in-country subsidiary, Alphamin Bisie Mining SA (ABM), who is based in Goma.
Faber – who Kamstra describes as “without peer as a mine builder in remote environments” – has plenty of DRC experience, having been involved in projects such as Ruashi and Kinsenda in the south of the country in the Central African Copperbelt region, while Robinson is an expert in managing the political and social aspects of mining projects. He has worked in the past with USAID and copper miner Freeport McMoRan, which until recently operated the Tenke Fungurume mine in Lualaba (previously Katanga) Province. The son of American missionaries, he was brought up in the Congo, speaks fluent French and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country.
An achievement for which Robinson can take much of the credit is the creation of the Lowa Alliance, a not-for-profit foundation established in 2016 by Alphamin in conjunction with local communities, which will implement a range of community projects identified for development over a five-year period. Alphamin is dedicating 4 % of its in-country spend to the Alliance.
Alphamin also has a strong board brimming over with the type of experience which the company needs. It includes well-known mining personalities such as Charles Needham (who is Alphamin’s Chairman) and Bernard Swanepoel, as well as finance sector veteran Paul Baloyi, ex-CEO of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and of Nedbank Africa.
The company is also advised by a ‘Panel of Experts’ it has established. Among them are Tony Cox, who is an expert on underground mining methods, particularly the Sub-Level Caving method to be used at Bisie, and Ian Dun, who is a tin metallurgist with a world reputation. Also on the panel is mining entrepreneur Rob Still of Pangea Exploration. Still and his long-time colleague Anton Esterhuizen, a noted geologist and ‘mine finder’, can claim to have been among the first to have identified Bisie’s incredible potential and to have set in motion the chain of events that has resulted in Bisie being under development today.
Turning to the technical aspects of the project (and as Modern Mining reported in an article that appeared in its September 2017 issue), Bisie will be a straightforward operation using mining and processing methods which are widely used and well proven.
As mentioned, the proposed mining method is Sub-Level Caving (SLC) to remove the orebody in retreat fashion from the southern and northern limits of mineralisation back towards the centralised trucking ramp. The equipment used to mine the orebody is being sourced from Atlas Copco and delivery of the first units to site is imminent. The machines will include a 10-tonne LHD, two long-hole rigs and a roof bolter. Interestingly, the LHD will not load into purpose-designed mining trucks. As Faber told Modern Mining recently on site, Alphamin – following the example of tin mines in China and Bolivia – has decided to go for conventional rigid tipper trucks and is currently evaluating the offerings from various suppliers. At this stage, it is envisaged that a fleet of four trucks will be needed.
The ore delivered to surface will be treated using conventional – and simple – gravity separation methods. Mined ore will be crushed to 100 % passing 10 mm. The coarse material (10 mm to +1 mm) accounts for 75 % of the mass flow and the tin contained in this size fraction will be recovered in conventional jigs. The fine material (-1 mm) makes up the balance of the material and the tin contained in this stream will be recovered using spirals. The concentrates from both the jigs and spirals will be milled and subjected to flotation to remove sulphide material.
The tin-rich concentrate – certified as conflict-free – will be thickened, filtered and dispatched by road to Goma, where it will be delivered to metal traders who will then take over the responsibility for the product and its onward transport to smelters. According to Faber, the plan is for the concentrate to be trucked down to Alphamin’s logistical ‘hub’ at Logu, just off the Goma-Kisangani road (and 38 km from the mine), using 8×8 rough-terrain trucks. At Logu, the product will then be transferred on to normal road trucks for the balance of the journey to Goma.
“We have designed and are trialling dual-purpose half-height containers to be used on the Bisie-Logu section of the route, the idea being to have the tin concentrates on the outward leg being balanced by diesel and supplies on the return leg,” Faber told Modern Mining.
While on site recently, Modern Mining was able to view the progress being made on the project. The boxcut required to establish the portal was complete and the main drive to reach the orebody had advanced about 40 m, with the rate of advance temporarily slowed due to the need to install steel-arch sets for support over the first 50 m of the excavation. In addition, work was all but complete on a ventilation adit above the main drive with work soon to start on a 40-m deep, 3-m diameter, concrete-lined vertical shaft which will also serve as a second means of egress from the mine.
Since Modern Mining’s visit, the main drive has progressed well and by mid-December 100 m of advance had been completed. Progress is also being made on surface with earthworks now underway to create the terraces for the crushers and the process plant and a landing strip to serve the mine also being constructed.
Most of the main contracts for the construction of the mine and plant have now been awarded, with DRA appointed as the EPCM contractor, Reliant as the mining contractor and Group Five as the SMPP contractor. Kongo River (an associate company of South Africa’s Teichmann Group), which was responsible for getting the boxcut completed on time and within budget, continues to be involved with the project and is now handling the civils for the processing plant, the balance of the earthworks, the airstrip and further work on the access road.
All the contractors appointed thus far are either based in the DRC or have DRC experience, with many of the DRA team, for example, having worked on the Kibali gold project, located just ‘up the road’ from Bisie. The only major contract remaining to be let is the Electrical and Instrumentation (E&I) contract.
Once the contractors have finished their labours and the mine is commissioned next year, Alphamin will rank as one of the lynchpins of North Kivu’s economy – and will certainly be the only commercial mine of any substance in the province. But the new mine may be just the first of several. “Apart from further exploitation of Mpama North at depth, we see scope for a second mining operation at Mpama South, a few hundred metres down the ridge from Mpama North, and there are also other promising targets throughout our licence area. We are sitting on an entire mineralised system at Bisie and it is certainly not fanciful to see Mpama North as marking the emergence of an entire tin mining province,” concludes Kamstra.
Publication: Crown Publications
Written by: Arthur Tassell