Tin soldiers: building Bisie

Kongo River, a subsidiary of Teichmann SA, was appointed as the earthworks and civil contractor for the airstrip at Bisie.

By Leon Louw

The challenges facing any mining or construction project are magnified when operating in remote regions such as North Kivu in the DRC. Leon Louw was one of a group of journalists invited to visit Alphamin Resources’ Bisie Tin Project.

Alphamin Resources’ Bisie Tin Project in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is one of the most exciting new developments in the mining industry. It does, however, present a fair number of technical and logistical challenges, while the social and security risks remain a reality. Nevertheless, with a grade of more than 4% tin, it would be hard for punters not to back Bisie.

But even for investors hell-bent on a high-risk, high-reward strategy, Bisie is bound to cause sweaty palms and white knuckles — and not only when sitting in the office tracking the unpredictable tin price. The self-doubt, hope, questioning, and queasiness are markedly more pronounced when clutching both armrests of your seat as the small plane carrying 12 passengers (and a reconditioned engine) angles in to land on the makeshift airstrip in the village of Walikale, smack bang in the middle of the Central African rainforest.

Alphamin recently invited a group of South African journalists to join the management team on an exhilarating, at times hair-raising, and somewhat arduous journey deep into the sweltering forests of North Kivu. And here lies the dilemma for most of the praise singers, risk takers, and Bisie-believers: the logistics of making this project work. Just getting there is difficult. It takes a flight from Johannesburg to Kigali in Rwanda, a three-hour drive to Goma (that includes a border crossing to the DRC), another 40-minute flight to Walikale, and a final bumpy, four-hour roller coaster 4 × 4 drive to reach Alphamin’s base camp on a steep hill overlooking the intimidating dark-green patches of the gleaming forest. There is a hive of activity, just beneath base camp, as Bisie gears up in preparation for first tin production, expected in 2019.

The hill at Bisie
The hill at Bisie has made international headlines before, but for the wrong reasons. Not too long ago, it was regarded as a symbol of conflict minerals; a perfect example of what could go wrong in a country ludicrously rich in mineral resources, but without the means to regulate its extraction and export. Over the years, Bisie’s tin has sponsored many dubious characters, dangerous rebels, and the occasional insurgency and revolt. Only a few years ago, thousands of artisanal miners toiled in the hand-dug, man-sized tunnels, to make a living by selling the raw product and paying taxes to agents of various illegal entities.

Lake Kivu on the border between Rwanda and the DRC. To get to Bisie, take a flight to Kigali, drive to Goma in the DRC, cross the border, fly to Walikale, and hop onto a 4 × 4 for a four-hour drive to Bisie.

“Bisie was a honeypot of surface-level cassiterite. At one stage, there were 18 different illegal taxes that were collected by government and armed groups,” says Richard Robinson, managing director of Alphamin Bisie Mining. According to Robinson, there were, at times, five armed groups involved, and so much money that it corrupted the Congolese security services. Therefore, corrupt elements were supporting different groups of artisanal miners and illegal co-operatives. Robinson says that at one stage, there were as many as 15 000 artisanal miners working the hill. “Today, there are less than 400,” says Robinson.

Alphamin embarked on a relentless programme of negotiation and compromise to ensure peace returns to the area, and although platoons of armed security personnel and police still guard its operation (and visitors), it feels safe at Bisie. What CEO Boris Kamstra and his team, led by Robinson and chief operating officer Trevor Faber, have achieved up to now, is nothing short of astounding. They hacked and built a road through almost impenetrable forest, dealt with the artisanal and security concerns, and, against all odds, are busy constructing a mine, which is on track to produce the highest-grade tin product in the world, in time, as promised.

Security is still a concern in the eastern part of the DRC, and an armed police officer guards each vehicle in the convoy to Bisie.

Faber, of course, is known as a formidable character, and it won’t be the first mine in a remote area that sees the light under his guidance. He has done it in Katanga and the Copperbelt before, and is about to do it in Kivu. But, as Faber admits, getting Bisie up and running is certainly not an easy task.

The business of building a mine
“At the moment, Bisie is an infrastructure project with a mine at the end of it,” says Faber. In the beginning, there was no road access to Bisie, and Alphamin had to build a road from scratch with very basic equipment, using local labour. Before the road was completed, equipment and workers were flown in with helicopters, which made it a costly exercise. Now, at least (although the road is a work in progress), it is possible to get most materials and equipment to site by truck, although the time it takes is weather dependent. If it rains (which it often does in this part of the world), it can take days for a truck load to arrive on site from Goma, about 230km away, or from Kisangani, about 450km north-east of Walikale.

Workers from the local community are working on the excavation of the horizontal ventilation shaft at Bisie.

Construction of the underground mine is in full swing, with work on the ventilation shaft and main portal making timely progress. Because it was difficult to bring in support for the entrance to the ventilation shaft, Faber and his team mounted old drill rods that were used during the exploration phase instead of conventional support.

Richard Robinson, a born Congolese and managing director of Alphamin Bisie Mining, has done a sterling job in keeping all the stakeholders in Walikale happy.

“We installed these drill rods as roof covers and side covers. When we reach a stage where the rock is competent enough, the team will start installing traditional arches and roof bolts,” says Faber. The 133m from the entrance of the horizontal shaft to where the workers are now, was developed manually by a team consisting mostly of local labourers, some of them artisanal miners that decided to stick around when construction got underway. It took them almost two years to develop the drive. The ventilation shaft, which is located above the main adit, will be connected to the main drive by means of a vertical shaft. Currently, the team is advancing at a rate of 1.5m per day, and blasting takes place every second day. Work on a second ventilation shaft is underway.

A road cuts through the forest from Goma to Walikale, but when it rains, it can take more than a week to negotiate the 260km of sand, mud, small rivers, and dilapidated bridges.

Mobilising the contractors
Construction work on the plant and associated infrastructure will start in February 2018. At the time of writing (November 2017) only the structural, mechanical, piping and plating (SMPP) contractor had been officially appointed.

Boris Kamstra, CEO of Alphamin Resources, keeping the shareholders happy — even if the signal is not that good.

“We will only have three contractors on site: the mining contractor, the earthworks and civils contractor, and the SMPP contractor,” says Faber. The civil and earthworks contractor will most likely be South Africa-based Teichmann’s DRC subsidiary, Kongo River.

Kongo River’s fleet of Bell equipment has already started the preliminary earthworks and bush clearing for Bisie’s airstrip, construction of which is imminent. Kongo River recently completed an extremely successful project at Randgold’s Kibali gold mine, north-east of Bisie in the Orientale Province, and is one of only a few companies that really understands the operating environment in the DRC. Reliant SPRL is the mining contractor appointed to develop the first phase of the decline, and is based in Kolwezi, situated in the Lualaba Province in the south of the DRC.

Local labourers were recruited to build the road to the mine. Some of them used to be artisanal miners.

The contract for the first phase of mine development ends in March 2018, and tenders for the second phase of mine development have been received from several international mining contractors. Group Five Construction has been appointed as the SMPP contractor.

“It is important that contractors know the eastern parts of the DRC, especially the logistics and infrastructure. Group Five has done a lot of good work at Kibali, as has Teichmann. It is difficult for contractors to do their first job in these parts of the DRC. It is a very complex country to operate in,” says Faber. In addition to the contractors already mentioned, engineering consultants DRA have been on site since the start of the project.

Procuring equipment
Alphamin has procured a fleet of mining equipment from underground hard rock mining specialists Atlas Copco, now Epiroc (the company recently split its operations into an industrial arm, still known as Atlas Copco, and its mining division, which is called Epiroc). The equipment includes three drill rigs (one for the face, one to install support, and a long-hole drill rig), and a 10-tonne class LHD.

Alphamin has managed to hack a way through thick forest from Walikale to Bisie to build a road, which is about 35km.

After blasting, the LHD will dump the ore into rigid-body tipper trucks. Alphamin has elected to use rigid-body tipper trucks underground instead of the conventional articulated dump trucks (ADTs). “We visited several mines in Peru and China where they use these rigid-body tipper trucks. In Peru, the Volvo rigid tipper is popular underground, and based on their safety and performance levels, we decided to acquire four of these trucks, which will be sourced from Volvo, Scania, or MAN,” says Faber.

The Atlas Copco LHD is a 10-tonne class loader and the tipper trucks will be equipped with an 18cm³ bin. When fully loaded, the truck will carry about 20t of material. The specific gravity of the Bisie ore is 3.5t/m³, and Faber says the bin sizes on the rock-moving equipment had to be reduced to prevent damage to the hydraulic system, suspension, and transmission. The trucks will tip the ore on surface stockpiles, from where it will be fed by Bell front-end loaders into the processing plant.

Trevor Faber, chief operating officer at Bisie, is known to have built several mines from scratch in remote areas of Africa, and is doing it again in Kivu.

A set of primary, secondary, and tertiary crushers will reduce the run of mine ore from 450mm to 80% passing minus 10mm. The minus 10mm material forms the feed for the jigs. The underflow from the jigs is fed through a series of shaking tables and spirals to create a final concentrate containing about 62% tin. A flotation step is required to remove the sulphide minerals from the tin concentrate, following which the concentrate is thickened and filtered to reduce its moisture content. Filtration will be carried out on horizontal belt filters, supplied by South African company Roytech.

Work on the main drive is progressing steadily. Local contractor Relient has been working with the Bisie team.

Shipping out
Once bagged, the tin will have to be trucked to Goma, and this is where the operation becomes tricky. The road to Goma is in a very bad condition; however, Alphamin is assisting the North Kivu Province in upgrading the road over the next six months. The strategy is to have rough-terrain 4 × 4 trucks cover the portion of road from the village of Logu to the mine (about 35km), which is extremely rough conditions. At Logu, the product is then reloaded onto normal road trucks that will transport it further to Goma, where the customers will take over the logistics, and truck the tin to either Dar es Salaam in Tanzania or to Mombasa in Kenya. TMK, a local DRC transport company, has been contracted to take care of the transport. The company has invested in a fleet of 18 rough-terrain trucks, which will supplement its current fleet of normal road trucks.

“Logistics is a significant part of this project, and one of the major challenges,” says Faber.

Dealing with the bumpy road
The journey to Walikale and from there to the mine is bumpy, but rewarding. There is no doubt that further challenges await the brave and competent team at Bisie. These challenges will probably never totally disappear. Investing in the DRC is a high-risk strategy; building a mine from scratch in the eastern parts of the DRC is, well, not for the faint-hearted. The major risks, says Robinson, are the infrastructure constraints, political risks, the artisanal question, and security.

Work on the ventilation shaft at Bisie is progressing at a steady rate.

The artisanal issues have been dealt with, and may be on the back burner. It has become way too difficult for artisanal miners to get to the ore body, which outcropped in the past, but has now been mined out on surface. The political and security risks remain, as the Congolese population becomes impatient with Laurent Kabila’s lethargy and refusal to call new elections. The biggest question mark, however, is infrastructure. To get supplies and equipment in, and product out, will always be a high-risk, high-cost endeavour, even when the roads are upgraded.

Nevertheless, Bisie is an exemplary example of the old proverb, ‘where there is a will there is a way’. When Kamstra asked Robinson (who is a local Congolese and at that stage worked for an NGO) about Bisie four years ago, Robinson replied that they shouldn’t touch it.

Today, Bisie is less than two years away from producing conflict-free tin, and Robinson is employed by Alphamin. Alphamin did many things right in Walikale. Through Robinson and Kamstra, they have built strong relationships with the communities, artisanal miners, and government representatives. Faber and his mining team, including the contractors on site, are the best in the business and familiar with the operating environment in the eastern parts of the DRC.

A view of the construction from base camp, on top of the Bisie hill.

Although there are still isolated reports of violence every so often, it seems that peace has returned to Walikale; the guns have gone silent. The only noise on the hill at Bisie is that of 300 miners building a mine — possibly the richest tin mine on earth. A lot has changed for that mysterious hill at Bisie. It is now a beacon of hope and a kingpin in the international tin market. And that, frankly, is enough reason to tick all the boxes, even if I was one of those desk-bound, white-knuckled, and sweaty-palmed punters.

*All images credit: Leon Louw

14 Feb 2018

By Leon Louw
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