Consulting geologist Marc-Antoine Audet first arrived in Côte d’Ivoire in 1994 as part of a nickel laterite exploration team for former Canadian natural resources firm Falconbridge. He was to spend four years in the country, serving as senior project geologist and director of operations for Falconbridge, during which time he became aware of significant base metals mineralisation in the Achaean craton just West of the Ivorian segment of the Birimian Greenstone Belt – which is predominantly understood as the prolific gold system underpinning West Africa’s mineral wealth. After continuing his exploration career with Falconbridge and its subsequent acquirer Xstrata, Audet returned to Côte d’Ivoire in 2009 and formed Sama Resources to focus on the nickel-copper sulphide opportunities he identified in the 1990s.
In a tumultuous first decade, the fledgling company encountered myriad external challenges including civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire, the Ebola crisis of 2013-16 and a severe slowdown in the resources sector which slashed funding available to junior explorers. However, Sama not only survived these existential threats, but succeeded in discovering a new geological intrusion called the Yacouba Complex, which shows potential for hosting high-grade nickel-copper-cobalt and palladium mineralisation in pods that are yet to be discovered. TSXV-listed Sama has been chasing these massive sulphide reservoirs over the last 10 years, undertaking a series of geophysical and exploration drilling campaigns to enhance its understanding of the host mineralisation at depth.
The company’s Samapleu Nickel-Copper project is located approximately 600 km Northwest of Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan, adjacent to the Ivorian–Guinean border and immediately South to the world class nickel-cobalt laterite deposits of Sipilou and Foungouesso.
The mineralisation at Samapleu is typical of a layered pipe–like intrusion or conduit‐hosted nickel deposits, similar to intrusions that host some of the world’s largest nickel‐copper sources such as the Norilsk deposits in Russia and the Voisey’s Bay Mine in Canada.
“The ore at Samapleu is very beautiful,” says Audet, president and CEO of Sama. “Even though it was formed two billion years ago, the ore has not suffered any alteration, metamorphism or other deterrent activities that sometimes you see in other deposits around the world.
The surface Samapleu nickel–copper-PGE mineralisation is composed mainly of disseminated sulphide mineralisation within a well preserved pyroxenite. Numerous high–grade nickel, copper and PGE veins and stringers are cross-cutting the mineralised pyroxenite.
“All the metallurgical tests that we have done so far, especially with SGS in Canada and with CVMR, have shown that the recovery of the ore is very good. If we wanted to produce a concentrate, we can produce a 10-11% nickel concentrate and 20% copper concentrate, but we want to go further than that.”
Publishing the PEA
In typical fashion, Sama triumphed in the face of adversity in publishing a preliminary economic assessment (PEA) for the Samapleu project in May, while the world (and Côte d’Ivoire) was in the grip of a global pandemic.
The main purpose of the PEA, which was prepared by DRA Global in Canada through DRA Met-Chem, was to underline the value of the project by advertising the company’s ability to produce nickel and iron powders ready for direct use in various industrial applications.
“The idea was to use a well-known technology that was jointly enhanced by Falconbridge and CVMR in the early 2000s to produce an iron and nickel nano-powder. Thereafter, Toronto-based CVMR further developed on their own the technology.
“Using this technology, we can produce a final product which would be sold at 100% value from the project site. This is exciting because instead of producing an intermediate concentrate that we would have to sell to smelters around the world, at let’s say 70% of the LME value, now we will produce something that will be sold directly to market.
“We saw the opportunities available with the technology a couple years ago and worked hard with CVMR to adapt the process to the ore that we have at Samapleu,” Audet explains.
The PEA indicated that Samapleu will have an annual production rate of 3,900 tonnes of carbonyl nickel powder, 8,400 tonnes of carbonyl iron powder and 14,100 tonnes of copper concentrate over a 20-year mine life.
In addition, the study estimated a pre-tax NPV of US$616 million and an IRR of 32.5% against an initial capex of $282 million and operational costs of $23.96 per tonne milled, underlining the economic viability of the project.
Turning on Typhoon™
Sama’s 2020 exploration drilling campaign aims to seek out the massive sulphide reservoirs at depth that host the high–grade nickel–copper-PGE massive sulphide veins and stringers the company has identified at surface.
Throughout the campaign, Sama has utilised an exploration system called Typhoon™, having partnered with its proprietor HPX TechCo in October 2017. HPX provides solutions to base metals explorers and is owned by Ivanhoe Mines founder and mining magnate Robert Friedland. Its Typhoon™ system is an IP and EM tool providing depth penetration up to five times deeper than other equipment.
“This extremely powerful tool has allowed us to identify several good zones for follow up drilling, which we are doing now,” says Audet. “We are exploring almost 50 km of strike length along the complex and every time we drill targets defined by Typhoon™, we hit mineralisation.”
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Sama planned to conduct 6,000 metres of drilling across three targets by the end of the first half of the year, using HPX’s Typhoon™ technology. However, the pandemic has necessitated a reduced workforce in line with social distancing measures, which has resulted in a slowdown in exploration activity.
Nonetheless, at the time of writing Sama had completed around 4,000 metres of drilling and was closing in on its H1 target. “We have drilled below Samapleu, which is where we found mineral resources near surface.
“We have a very strong EM target 750 metres below the Samapleu current resources that still needs to be drilled. We are also currently drilling the targets that we defined at a newly discovered area called Yepleu, 25 km Southwest of the original discovery at Samapleu. At Yepleu we are drilling a hole targeting a very strong EM target at +850 metres from surface and its ongoing.”
Investing in in Côte d’Ivoire
Despite owning its own drill rigs, which allows Sama to be flexible and efficient with its exploration campaigns, the company is proud to support the Ivorian economy and businesses through local procurement of goods and services for the camp.
Commenting on Sama’s corporate social responsibilities in the region, Audet highlights the importance of local employment in Côte d’Ivoire, where one employee can support about 20 people on average. “With this in mind, we are really careful with regards to giving opportunities to local people.”
Back in the 90s, Audet was based just North of the Samapleu project and so when he returned with Sama in the 2000s, he was able to call on the same individuals from his Falconbridge days, in particular exploration manager Bakayoko Bouake, who is Sama’s representative in Côte d’Ivoire.
“We’ve been working together for at least 20 years now, so there are very strong bonds between us and the local community. It’s a big family and we don’t have any expatriates. Everything is run by Ivorians – the accountants, the geology, the environment, the social side and more.
“It’s important that we have a strong presence in Abidjan but also on the exploration site, which allows us to be efficient and close to the people.” As alluded to by Audet, Sama has elicited support from the Ivorian government through its conduct over the last decade, and this is exemplified by the recent recognition of the company’s local work by the Ivorian head of state.
In October 2019, Sama received the highest distinction award from Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly for the quality of its work supporting the local community around the Samapleu project. Audet says it was a pleasant surprise to receive this high level government acknowledgement, and reveals that two more ministers have since visited the site to witness first-hand Sama’s exploration progress.
Searching for the source
Over the next 12 months, Sama aims to continue fine tuning its studies for open pit production at Samapleu and plan for additional metallurgical studies while holding discussions with the government relating to off-site infrastructure, including roads and power supply.
“We also want to continue doing exploration with the aim of locating these accumulations of high–grade nickel-copper sulphides at depth. What we have discovered at surface is only a small shoot of massive sulphides. But we believe they have to originate from a source at depth because they are cross cutting surface mineralisation very sharply.
“This is where we are and that is one of the goals, to find these accumulations. We believe it is there, the geology of the system supports this and we will continue to chase those massive sulphide reservoirs,” Audet concludes.