In June 2019, Alphamin Resources completed C4 commissioning of the processing plant at its Mpama North Tin Project, located deep in the jungle of North Kivu in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The C4 certificate indicates that each plant component can successfully operate with ore material, C5 stage/commercial production – attained when the facility can be run and held at nameplate capacity for 48 hours – was completed by the end of July. This major milestone is a fitting bookend for Alphamin’s remarkable five-year journey from concept to full production at Mpama North. What began with an idea to build a responsibly produced tin mine in an area scarred by conflict and exploitation will end with a globally significant project that will also serve as a major catalyst for socioeconomic development in the region.
“The plant is running remarkably well given the time period its been running for,” says TSX and JSE-listed Alphamin’s then CEO Boris Kamstra. “We naturally would like to get our recoveries slightly higher and we have plans in place to lift them, but overall the plant is doing very well.
“The mine is producing sufficient material and the grade is surprising us on the upside. Things are going as smoothly as one could wish.” Construction of Mpama North – the first phase of the mine at Bisie – was completed on time and first production was achieved in the second quarter of 2019.
In the following quarter, Alphamin boosted production by 269% to 2,345 tonnes of contained tin and overall plant recoveries improved to 65% in August and September, edging towards the company’s stated target of 72%.
Tin grades mined and processed also increased in Q3 to an average 5.6% Sn, which is expected to taper off to 4–5% Sn during the final quarter of the year. Alphamin said it expects to produce 2,000-2,200 tonnes of contained tin in Q4.
A globally significant tin mine
Alphamin believes Bisie is one of the highest grade tin resources in the world, with two known deposits – Mpama North and the adjacent Mpama South, where access work is already taking place to develop the company’s next deposit. There are also additional exploration targets further South.
Current metrics estimate that Mpama North will produce approximately 10,000 tonnes of contained tin a year, based on a mineral resource estimate of 208,100 tonnes tin in the measured and indicated category.
The 12.5-year underground operation has a short payback period and it should fall into the lowest cost quartile of all tin producers, while generating an average EBITDA of $110 million per year at tin prices of around $21,000 per tonne, according to Alphamin.
However, these figures are currently being revised by the company in connection with a change of mining method. “The mining method has always been a challenge and we have been faced with the conundrum of how to mine efficiently and safely without leaving too much orebody behind,” says Kamstra.
When Alphamin first started drilling the orebody back in 2012 it was as much exploration as it was resource drilling, and a decision to mine using sub-level caves was made using the information provided by core drilling results.
However, when the company eventually went in underground and made the first few drill blasts, several issues quickly became evident. “The host rock was fragmenting far more than the mineralised material which would give us major problems in the flow of the cave.
“In addition, whenever we encountered artisanal workings, we would get a high volume of water coming to us and we were concerned about the risks of mud rush. In a defensive mode, we went to a cut and fill type mining operation, which we have been doing to date while we get a better feel for the orebody and decide on our optimal mining method.”
South Africa-based Bara Consulting carried out the initial mining study at Mpama North before DRA took over the studies via Tony Cox – a sub-level caving expert. Reliant Congo SARL was Alphamin’s choice of mining contractor at Mpama North.
“On the ground, we had Congo River doing our earthworks and they were absolutely exceptional. Getting kit into our region is a challenge, let alone to the mine itself. They did all the earthworks and civils impeccably.
“Then we had Group Five doing all the structured steel, piping and mechanical and electrical installation. Locally, we used Busy Bee as our chartered flights partner, ATS is our catering and camp services provider and TMK our logistics provider.
“Our local partners have been quite remarkable in their ability to get things moving and keeping us on schedule, all of our sub-contractors and service providers have been exceptional,” declares Kamstra.
Stimulating local business
More recently, Alphamin has looked to reverse engineer much of the operational components it requires at Bisie, while also finding ways of developing enterprises for local people and integrating small businesses into the project’s supply chain.
For example, Alphamin is growing a network of local small-scale farmers for the camp’s fresh vegetable requirements. This centrally organised structure is connected to a wider network of farmers in the region, but still gives ATS a single point from which to place their orders. The company is looking to expand this enterprise into other staples including fish, poultry and eggs.
Kamstra often discusses the tremendous aptitude for work expressed by the residents of the Bisie region that have been engaged on the project, and the former CEO lights up when asked about the story of one man who encapsulates the sheer grit and determination of the local people.
“One of our employees is a man called Anderson. Before he came to us, he taught himself English using YouTube and he had to do it after midnight because that’s when data charges are lower. Since then he has worked his way up the ranks and today he is one of our key control room operators.
“I walk into the control room one day and there is Anderson, sitting behind six screens with three two–way radios blaring out. He is sitting at the heart of our operation and he’s able to keep the ship steady and going strongly.
“That gives us an enormous sense of pride and it’s nice to see that we are able to find people who don’t necessarily have the skill required at hand but have more than sufficient capacity, willingness and desire to learn how to do it, and then do it very successfully.”
Alphamin ultimately plans to count its entire operational staff from the local area, and this is just one way in which the company is making a huge difference in the region which still harbours scars from years of artisanal conflict-driven mining.
The conflict-free pledge
A fundamental part of Alphamin’s licence to mine is derived from its promise to deliver conflict-free tin in the Bisie region, where previously up to 2,000 artisanal miners toiled in rudimentary deposits at the mercy of armed militias controlling the distribution of tin from the area into global supply chains.
At one stage this sprawling illegal mining network hosted 16,000 people at Bisie and accounted for 4% of global tin supply. It soon became apparent to several major corporations that their supply chains were tainted by chaos, misery and death.
In response to this grave realisation, an international legislative drive aimed at preventing the proliferation of conflict-driven minerals into supply chains led to the development of several initiatives including the Dodd-Frank Act.
“We are delighted to be producing conflict-free tin from the very site that was catalytic in getting conflict minerals recognised and bringing the Dodd–Frank legislation to light,” Kamstra exclaims.
“The impact in the area has been enormous, from massive improvement in safety and security to the development of local businesses. We’ve opened up the logistics to the area so now there are shops selling all sorts of produce. Local farmers producing palm oil and other products are now able to access broader markets beyond the local areas.”
However, the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in the South Kivu and Goma areas of the DRC poses a significant risk to Alphamin’s operations, although the company has enacted strict protocols to prevent the spread of the disease.
An individual carrying the virus is only infectious when they have a high temperature, so Alphamin has erected temperature monitoring stations at several important checkpoints. So far there have been no instances of infection within the Bisie area.
“We have a rigid system in place whereby you cannot get on the plane in Goma until your temperature is taken. And when you get off the place it’s taken again and again when you enter the mine site. You’re likely to have your temperature taken 12+ times in a day. This allows us to quickly identify potential Ebola carriers to treat them and isolate them from others.”
Coming full circle
After seeing the Bisie project through from early feasibility to production in just under five years, Kamstra recently decided to step down from his role as CEO of Alphamin. Commenting on the legacy he leaves behind, the outgoing boss says: “It’s been a wonderful privilege to be involved in a project like this and to have been able to influence such an incredible part of the world for the better.
“I think it’s terrific that in the middle of one of the most inaccessible areas possible, with every reason why you shouldn’t be able to do what we done – there it stands, a tin producing mine! And it will produce tin for many years and continue to add to the wellbeing of the area.”
Alphamin is aiming on extending the life of the Bisie mine through the development of the Mpama South deposit, which could be funded by revenue generated from the Mpama North ore, as it seeks to cement Alphamin’s position as a long-term catalyst for socioeconomic development in the region.