Monday, May 17, 2021

Will the extra 600 Mcts at Jwaneng and Orapa save Botswana?

Up until about June of last year everyone believed that Botswana was going to fall off a fiscal cliff after 2029.

This was at the heart of the economic thinking in the country’s 10th National Development Plan.┬á When BIDPA presented the results of an analysis of Botswana after diamonds in November we were happily told that we were wrong and that diamond mining┬á would go on to 2050. According to the geologists there is enough diamonds at┬á Jwaneng and Orapa for these mines to continue for decades.

Few people seem to comprehend how far reaching the new deposits of diamonds announced by HE the president in his state of the Nation Address after the elections. He said quite clearly that the country will remain a major producer of diamonds until 2050. But what does that actually mean? ┬áHE gave no figures and there is no way that Anglo-American or De beers will say until they have completed a bankable feasibility study that is compliant with its obligations to the stock exchange. Anglo cannot just bandy around numbers- they have to be technically verifiable. But this number is the most important one in Botswana. Fortunately, though Mr Masire of the Diamond hub indicated, in Zimbabwe late last year that Botswana will be producing at about the current level to 2050. That means around 24 Mcts per annum. That means that the current resource assessment will mean that we have an extra 600MCT more than we thought we had. What difference will 600Mcts really make to Botswana’s future and┬á most importantly the government’s finances which are reliant upon on the taxes and profits made by De beers and Debswana?

What is known in the quasi- public domain about these new reserves? The most important fact was stated quite clearly and publicly by the Debswana CEO at the National Business Conference in Maun last November. He made it quite clear that it will require massive investments to extract these resources from Jwaneng and Orapa. How much is the question and I am reasonably confident that as yet De Beers has not yet  done the technical studies for this expansion  but the answer is in tens of billions over  a very long period.  Cut 8 which will not deliver anything near 600 Mcts cost about P28 billion.

Given that we are not going to know for a while, if ever, what these resources are┬á it is vital for those considering the future of Botswana to model what will happen with the extra diamond reserves that we know are there. It has been said that there is one extra fact about the new reserves. Orapa has always been a more prolific mine than Jwaneng but the value of Orapa’s diamonds are low because most are┬á low quality industrial diamonds with only approximately 40%┬á being of gem quality.┬á Not only are there extra diamonds the expansion at Orapa will transform that┬á mine from one which produces 60/40 industrial diamonds, to one that, at least for several years will be producing much more high value gem diamonds similar to those produced at the much richer mine at Jwaneng. Again how big and how much is not in the public domain.

The Orapa and Jwaneng mines are clearly nowhere near their end of mine life and no-one should be surprised if they continue to help the nation  for up to 100 years as was the case with other  giant Kimberly mine in South Africa. But how long these mines last  also depends on the value of diamonds. The bigger the hole you have to build the larger the capital cost in digging it and the higher the operating cost of extracting a carat of diamonds from the many tonne of ore.

If synthetic diamonds, which are better quality than the real thing and undistinguishable to the naked eye from the real thing penetrate the jewellery market, the fundamental economics of diamonds will change. Diamonds maintain their long term value because they are considered to be scarce. If they cease to be considered a rarity and become as cheap as bricks, being produced in some Chinese factory then there is no way Botswana’s diamond mines or its prosperity can be guaranteed.┬á

Right now the big diamond miners including Al Rosa, De Beers and Rio Tinto are discussing ways in which they can protect their mining assets. They are moving towards developing a new ISO standard for diamonds that may be able to protect the diamonds value changing from the illegal penetration by synthetics but unless this has the teeth of a legal process like the Kimberly process it will remain voluntary and ineffective.

What do you do when you are an economist and you do not know how much something is going to cost? The answer is simple enough- get rid of your problem by simply making  an assumption! Economists are infamous for their assumptions and when it comes to something like mine costs at such an early point they are no different. I, along with other economists did some analysis of what is likely to happen to government revenues as a result of these extra deposits.

I assumed that the  new 600 Mcts could not be extracted without a capital investment  equivalent in real terms to the equivalent of three Cut 8s i.e. about  100 billion real pula over and above what investment was likely to be in early resource assessment until the end of the mine in 2050. Even if you assumed that the quality of the Orapa diamonds would increase for a number of years the surprising result is that the revenue projection for Botswana is not that much different than that  which existed without these discoveries. There is still a decline in government revenue over the next  35 years but not a fiscal cliff.

This of course makes perfect sense if you understand the logic of mining. Operating costs and Capital expenditure (capex) is going to rise as the mine gets bigger and deeper. Under the 25 year contractual agreement between the Government and De Beers in 2004,┬á the government of Botswana gets 81% of what is called ‘free cash flow’. Free cash flow is the operating profit minus the capital expenditure or Capex. So as the costs rise as the hole gets bigger government will get less revenue. One day even Jwaneng and Orapa will close and unless we have diversified the economy or created a Fund for Future Generation like the Norwegians and the Qataris then Botswana’s children could well be much poorer than they are today. But there is no fund for future generations and that is why economic diversification is so important. Unfortunately after 35 years of trying the government has not succeeded in diversifying the economic base of the country. Botswana is now as dependent, if not more,┬á on diamond exports than it was 30 years ago.┬á

The extra 600Mcts of diamonds will not save Botswana, they will increase revenues by several tens of billion pula over what we could have otherwise expected but it is unlikely to make that much difference. In my estimates the extra revenues are equal to approximately of P42 billion over 35 years. If the capital cost of  expanding Orapa and Jwaneng is significantly lower (50%) then the benefit of the extra diamonds will be a more significant at some P80 billion over 35 years and while it is a significant increase in revenue it is still not enough to turn the country around.

As much as those economists in the government enclave would like to avoid what so many of them say is the impossible problem of Botswana’s economic diversification, they cannot because the increasing numbers of unemployed youth will find a way of reminding them. In the end the obligation of those who govern must be to diversify the economy, the one thing that will provide jobs and along with it the peace and stability of the nation.

These are the view of Professor Roman Grynberg and not necessarily any institution with which he may be affiliated. 

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