BCL Mine?s General Manager, Montwedi Mphathi, is leading an ambitious programme, called Vision 2020, which is aimed at expending the life-span of the oldest copper nickel mine in the country.
Speaking in an interview with The Sunday Standard, Mphathi said they are currently engaged in some exploration exercise with the view of increasing the life of the mine beyond 2014 to sustain the lives of some 80,000 people living in Selebi Phikwe and the surrounding areas.
?We have been doing some drilling around Selebi Phikwe?including in some of the homesteads?to try to determine the ore body. We have gone down 1.5 kilometers below sea level and I think that is the lowest level in Botswana. And we are now awaiting the test results and if there are any anomalies, then we will have to follow them up,? he said in an interview.
The drilling exercise covers a swath of land of about 20 kilometers by 10 kilometers?and underground lazier exploration ? which is under BCL mining lease.
The move, which started late last year followed an appeal by the mine general manager some two years ago.
?There are what we call anomalies and what is being done is some drilling to try to identify some resources and the project is expected to last for two years,? Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Waters Affairs, Kago Moshashane said.
He said the extension of the life-span of the mine will depend on a number of factors, including the discovery of resources and whether the price in the market is right.
?If the price is right relative to production costs then we will certainly see its life going beyond 2014,? he said.
BCL mine, which started in 1974, operates four shafts which run tens of kilometers across the township. Currently, the exploration is centered between shaft No.3 and Selebi. Shaft No.3 runs for over twenty kilometres from the south-eastern side of the town up to Makhubu while Selebi is from the same area but runs north.
The mine is rich in copper but has small deposits of nickel?one of the metals which is doing exceptionally well, thanks to the stainless steel hungry markets of China and the rest of the Asian markets.
Copper has also done well in recent years reaching an average price of US $ 6,000 per tonne before the end of the past year before sagging to US $ 582 per tonne or US $ 2.64 per pound on January 4, 2007.
Since Mphathi took-over, he has managed to turn-around the mine by splashing in appropriate technology, increased production level and cutting on costs in a bid to give the mine a competitive edge against its peers in the southern African region.
At the time he took the reigns, the mine was under intense speculation of being written off as it was expected to close by 2010. But that was not the first time for the mine to be too close to closure. Initially, it was to shut down in the 1990s, but later the dates were shifted to 2004 and, subsequently, to 2006.
The new developments at the mine include the spending on concentrate ? by installing new large volume roughers cells and cleaner tankers ? and the use of computer laizers in its underground mining operations. This tremendously improved the precision to ore with matte and the improvement in the float. The developments also improved the distribution control system in the operation of the mine.
The move has resulted in the mine production reaching three million tons of ore that translates into 35,000 tons of metals. The mine?s attempts to explore more resources is also expected to be aided by a bullish outlook on the copper prices which are expected to be on historical highs.
Mphathi is one of the country?s star managers who turned the loss making mine into a profitable organization.
Since he took over the financially troubled mine in 2003 with a mountain of P 414 million debt, he has been able to clear the principal debt in a record time.
?When I took over in 2003, one of the first things that we looked at was the internal process and we tried to change the parastatal mentality,? he said.
He was faced with a number of challenges, such as metal prices, exchange rate swings, production levels and mounting costs which were a drain on the mine but which needed to be addressed.
?Some of the issues we did not have any control over, such as metal prices and exchange controls. But we had an influence on production and costs and what we did was to maximize our production and managed to cut on costs,? he said.
But his plans have received some support from leading banking institutions, such as JP Morgan, which said copper prices are expected to average US $ 6390 per tonne during the first half of the year, while Goldman Sachs JB predicted prices as high as US $ 7500 per tonne during the entire year due to increased Chinese imports and supply disruptions similar to those of 2006. However, Macquarie and Merrill Lynch analysts were the only ones who were not bullish as the said prices are expected to be below the 2006 levels of US $ 6000 per tonne.
Shareholders at BCL Mine, which are the Botswana government and LionOre International, also own Tati Nickel mine.