Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Powering Botswana’s industrial revolution

As he surveyed the little coal mine that he had been assigned to manage, Cletus Tangane must have wondered if this was a scheme cooked to frustrate him out of the company.

Morupule Colliery was a relatively unknown outpost. At his previous station, Orapa and Letlhakane Mines (where he was Assistant General Manager), he could walk into an international mining conference in any part of the world, and he would not need to introduce himself twice. Compared to the prestige of one of the world’s best-known diamond mines, Morupule was nothing.

Another complication was that this was going to be his first experience with coal mining, apart from what he had picked up during industrial training while still at university.

He would later undertake a three-month familiarization tour of similar operations in South Africa to get in-depth knowledge of the industry he was getting into.

But that was later. First, he had to come to terms with this somewhat strange secondment to Morupule Colliery.

“Managers were being moved around. There was general restructuring within Debswana. I think somebody said, ‘Cletus Tangane has been in Orapa for over 23 years. Why not move him to Morupule?’”, he recalls.

He calls the decision to send him to Morupule “a blessing in disguise” because he got to experience what he regards as his most rewarding career highlights at the coal mine.

He remembers sitting in the boardroom, listening to a presentation on the sheer potential of Morupule Colliery and the vast coal deposits the mine is sitting on. He was dumbfounded by what this little known place could do to propel the country’s economy forward and the potential impact on the lives of ordinary people in terms of affordable electricity.

Even for the man who, in 1977, was only the second Motswana to graduate with a degree in mining engineering (after Tshipa Mothibatsela, former BOCCIM president), the resource and potential at Morupule was little known. As the presentation went on, he remembers thinking to himself, “What have we been waiting for?”

“Six years later, I think we have managed to put Morupule, if not the whole coal industry, on the world map,” he says. “We have managed to do this by trying to be efficient in what we do, and introducing new technology.”
First, he had to find his way around the difficulty that comes with being the new boss in an unfamiliar environment.
Morupule was a new culture.

Coal mining, especially underground mining, is a different kettle of fish from open pit diamond mining ÔÇô which had been his occupation for 23 years.

“With open pit mining, you can stand at the top and see what’s happening down inside the pit. You can’t do that with underground mining. The inherent nature of underground mining presents major challenges. Fortunately, I was at a level where I didn’t need any specialized training because the higher you go, the less technical skill you need. What you require at that level is managerial skills. The basic management principles are the same because the focus now becomes whether you have leadership qualities to propel the organisation forward, and whether you can outline a strategic vision of what an organisation requires,” he says.

Early in his stewardship of the colliery, Tangane decided that the operation needed a major overhaul. For 30 years, the mine had been steeped in conventional mining that entailed drilling for coal, putting in explosives, clearing the section before blasting, waiting for 15 minutes to check for safety, before blowing in air. It was a long circle to produce just a tonne of coal. New mining methods had to be introduced if this was going to be a competitive mining operation.

“We are in a global economy, and we have to be globally competitive,” he explains.

“My view was that we couldn’t afford to continue to mine the old way.”

He successfully presented his idea for recapitalisation to the board. A major part of his proposed plan was acquisition of a Continuous Miner, a wholly automated coal-mining machine that is faster and much safer than conventional mining. After board approval, followed consultation with employees and the unions because his plans would entail some redundancies. The consultation was aimed at sharing ideas on how to minimize the effect of job cuts. Counselling services were organised for affected employees.

As anticipated, there was resistance from unions and individual employees
“Change always takes people out of their comfort zones, so the resistance was to be expected. The whole exercise was driven by business imperatives, and it had to be undertaken. Of course, it was a very painful intervention because some colleagues had to be dropped, but it was for the good of the organisation. We have emerged much stronger, and much more prepared for future challenges, and even more prepared to create new jobs,” he says.

When the Continuous Miner was introduced in 2004, the consultation exercise had been going on for a year. Three years into the advent of the machine, Tangane’s assessment sheet looks like this: there is no more blasting, it’s much safer underground, production has gone up, and morale has improved.

“Due to improved revenue, we have recapitalised the mine, refurbished the infrastructure, built houses for employees, introduced home ownership scheme for employees, and made major strides in safety.

“Those of our colleagues who remained saw what this machine could do and they got to appreciate that we had to change. In terms of stability and outputs, it was a quantum leap. With expansion of the Morupule Power Station, we are going to buy more of these machines. As we expand due to increased demand for our product, first priority will be given to colleagues who were retrenched. We still have their addresses, and they will be contacted. Of course, suitability (for the job) will be a key factor because the job content has changed. We will also consider age and skill,” he says.

The future looks challenging and exciting. A multi-million Pula wash plant, which will improve the quality of Morupule Colliery’s product, will be commissioned towards the end of the year.

“Given the dynamics of coal mining, we are looking at alternative extraction methods. With our current methods, we leave 75 percent of the product behind.

We have engaged mining consultants to look at mining extractions to inform our future mining strategies,” he explains.
Botswana Power Corporation is expanding its Morupule power plant to make up for the electricity shortage that will result from the region’s diminishing power generation capacity. That means more demand for coal, and more work.
“We believe that with coal reserves we have, self-sufficiency in power is a realisable possibility. Access to affordable power for the nation is a prerequisite for economic development.

Electricity brings so much change in the lives of people. I don’t see why we can’t have sufficient electricity for everyone in Botswana. We should seize this opportunity to produce enough power to even export. We should establish ourselves as a power generation hub for southern Africa region, if not for the rest of Africa,” he says.

So how did it come about that Botswana, with its vast coal reserves, today faces impending power outrages?

“Up to 70 ÔÇô 80 percent of power consumed locally came from Eskom (the South African power utility parastatal). We were enticed by the surplus from Eskom, which was cheap, and there was no priority to generate power locally. We probably thought the surplus from Eskom would not diminish.

Of course, that was a shortsighted view, and it caught up with us very quickly. Look at the situation we are in now. We can have a major blackout, and the economy of this country will come down. The diamond mines would stop production. Right now we have to fast-track the (Morupule power plant expansion) project to meet the deadline, but when you fast-track a project, you skip certain stages,” he says.

His view is that Botswana should have started to prepare for an eventuality of power shortage as far back as 2001. Had the power station expansion been planned back then, the project would be reaching full capacity by now, and power shortage would be averted.

But even with this impending crisis, he remains optimistic that, “it’s not all doom and gloom”.

“If we work together, we should be able to bail ourselves out of the situation,” he explains. “We are working with BPC to ensure that the economy of Botswana does not fall to risk.”

The BPC power plant expansion will put pressure on Tangane to produce more coal. The two phases will each require an annual production of four million tonnes.

“That’s a lot of tonnage for an underground mine,” he quips.
How ready is Morupule Colliery for this challenge?

“Our readiness is dictated by what the power station requires. We have a firm commitment from BPC, and we are now going ahead with planning,” he says.

He is unfazed that increased domestic demand for coal would interfere with the export market that the mine has been trying to develop. Currently, that market includes exports to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

While he talks of great potential for export, he has to contend with a major transport constraint. Botswana’s geographic position as a landlocked country, far from the ports, is not made any better by an undeveloped railway infrastructure. He confesses that he finds this situation “very frustrating”.

To build a profitable coal exporting industry requires more than the idealistic thinking of a mining engineer nearing the end of his working life. He has invited Botswana Railways to come aboard to create synergies towards building a coal export industry.

As part of the relationship building, a joint team from the two institutions recently visited the Australian state of Queensland to study its coal export industry. What attracted Tangane’s attention was that Australian coal mining industry exports 81 million tonnes a year to Japan, China and India.

“We realised that there is integration between mining operations, the railway system, and the ports. We want to look at that in terms of building a model for coal mining and transport for Botswana. The support that the Queensland state government gives to the relationship is most important,” he says.

He believes a model of this nature could also be Botswana Railways’ lifeline.
“Botswana Railways needs to be supported by an industry such as coal, not transit traffic. If we develop a 25 ÔÇô 30 year contract to transport coal, that’s long-term assured business for them,” he says.

With international demand for energy surging, driven by the economic boom in China and India, Botswana’s vast coal reserves are of interest to international companies. Tangane sees this as both a challenge and an opportunity. Given the infant stage of Botswana’s coal industry, he looks at projects such as Mmamabula, not as competition, but strategic partners. He recently hosted executives from Aviva Corporation, which has acquired a licence to mine coal in Kgatleng.

“I freely shared information with them because I don’t look at them as competition, but a strategic partner in developing the coal industry,” he says.

From being viewed as “the guy who came all the way from Orapa to mess up our jobs”, Tangane has moved on to win the confidence and admiration of the union leadership. Whereas annual wage negotiations used to drag on for weeks without end, these days a deal is clinched in half a day.

He says labour relations is not rocket science.

His trick lies in honest disclosure of information.

“The Union comes here to ask for information, and as long as it’s not confidential ÔÇô the kind that I would not like to land in my competitor’s hands ÔÇô I give it to them. That helps because the Union would then negotiate from an informed position. The Union is an institution in its own right, and I respect that. The leap of faith is to build trust and confidence, and to treat Union as equals and not lie to them. If you lie, you will be found out and lose credibility.

“I always say credibility is like virginity; you lose it once, and never regain it. We have our differences, but it’s been a pleasure to negotiate with the unions,” he says.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Agric Ministry promotes fish farming

The Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security introduced a series of consultative forums this past week in Serowe to promote fish...