Mining has often been a “dirty” industry, with a history of exploitative social practices and environmental degradation, particularly in Africa. Various treaties and organizations have made efforts to clean up mining practices over the years, but French entrepreneur Romain Girbal has decided to start at the source. He is the president and cofounder of the Responsible Mining Alliance (AMR), a new company that is working to develop responsible mining projects in Africa that respect both the community and the environment. The company has already started its first bauxite mine in Guinea and its passionate leader is looking to expand.
Romain Girbal: From the City to the mines of Africa
Romain Girbal looked set to pursue a career climbing the corporate ladder. He studied business law at the University of Paris X Nanterre and international trade in Madrid. After graduating from the prestigious HEC business school in Paris in 2007, he moved to London and worked in the City as a junior consultant in structured financing for mining behemoth Glencore, where he focused on West Africa and Latin America. Glencore is the world’s largest commodities trading company, with over $170 billion in revenue in 2015. Looking back on his experience there, Girbal notes that “working there allowed me to familiarize myself with the sector and to quickly learn its norms, challenges and growth opportunities.” These lessons helped him to later launch the Responsible Mining Alliance.
In 2008, however, Romain Girbal left Glencore to become the director of the legal department of Harvest Energy Limited (owned by State Oil), a British company working in fuel distribution in several European countries. In his new role, he managed the daily negotiation and drafting of contracts. Girbal soon felt the need for a change, stating, “I then realized that I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit, and I wanted to try out an African adventure.” He joined up with Thibault Launay, a friend he made in London, and the two decided to try to make it on their own.
In 2012, they created Adventure Capital Corporation, a venture capital and consulting firm specializing in mining, oil and gas investments, mostly in Africa. These first steps foreshadowed the creation of the Responsible Mining Alliance in July 2015. This time, Romain Girbal and Thibault Launay set out to develop mining projects in Africa that were responsible both socially and environmentally, an innovative and ambitious vision that would begin to take shape in Guinea.
The Responsible Mining Alliance (AMR) rethinks mining
“With the Responsible Mining Alliance, we wanted to show that you can do mining differently,” declared Romain Girbal in February 2016 when asked about the philosophy of AMR on French business channel BFM. With this credo in mind, the two young French entrepreneurs set up shop in Guinea, persuaded of the enormous potential of mining in this emerging country. The Responsible Mining Alliance now holds a bauxite mining permit in Boké, in the northwest of the country.
Although Romain Girbal and Thibault Launay were eager to jump into the mining sector in Africa, they wanted to do so in a new and ambitious way. This is why the Responsible Mining Alliance goes further, with the goal of doing “socially responsible mining” as they told BFM Business. What does that mean?
“We’re trying to set new standards in the mining industry, first in Guinea where we are starting our operations. We’ve signed partnership agreements with the Boké School of Mining and the Boké Center for Professional Education so that our mining engineers and geologists can give free classes there,” explained Romain Girbal, sincerely motivated by the idea of changing things in an economic sector that has been stained by negative clichés. While the government of Guinea has standards for socially and responsible practices, his group is “working hard to set ever higher standards. Mining is about more than extracting raw materials. It can also be a way to get local communities involved in mining by starting win-win partnerships for everybody.”
The Responsible Mining Alliance’s vision could be summed up in a few key points: following high social standards, respecting the environment, favoring local employment as much as possible and training engineers and workers through partnerships. These aren’t just pretty words; as Romain Girbal likes to point out, “For us, we consider it a requirement. In terms of employment, for example, right now we are only a small team in Guinea, but 18 of our 21 employees are Guineans.”
The high standards Girbal has set for his project have attracted outside attention as well: in January 2016, Xavier Niel, the famous French billionaire and boss of telecom operator Free, decided to invest in the Responsible Mining Alliance via his personal holding company NJJ Capital. This was a big publicity win for the young mining company, and other well-known investors and partners have since joined the adventure. These include Anne Lauvergeon, ex-CEO of Areva; Edouard Louis-Dreyfus, head of Louis Dreyfus Shipowners; Alain Mallart, head of Energipole; and Daniel Lebard, head of ISPG. Not to mention Arnaud Montebourg, the former French Minister of the Economy, who worked his network to support the young French entrepreneurs’ project. In addition, the well-known French business journal Les Echos recently wrote an effusive article on AMR about how this mining startup is taking the Paris elite by storm. It’s just the latest media success for a project that seems to be going quite well.
Bauxite, the mineral at the heart of the AMR
Beyond the historical ambitions of this project, the AMR represents a strategic business choice to invest in bauxite, a mineral necessary for the production of aluminum. Bauxite is sold to aluminium oxide refineries, who then sell it to aluminum smelters to make the final product. According to Girbal, “You need about 4 tons of bauxite to produce 1 ton of aluminum.” In the context of globalization, where emerging economies like China have profoundly shaken up the market, bauxite is one of the most important raw materials for several strategic economic activities, such as aviation, transportation and construction.
In 2010, worldwide production of bauxite reached 211 million tons. Australia is the largest producer, with a third of the market, followed by China, Brazil, India and Guinea, which holds an 8% share.
According to the French Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM), Guinea alone holds 52% of the world’s bauxite reserves. Romain Girbal readily shares this number to show the potential of the Responsible Mining Alliance in this West African country undergoing rapid growth. “For the moment we’re only operating in the Boké prefecture, which is the real global center of bauxite and where the future of this strategic mineral lies because it’s where you find the world’s best bauxite,” Girbal notes. “Big mining companies are setting up here more and more.”
In Boke prefecture, in the northwest of the country, the Responsible Mining Alliance has obtained an exploration permit for 295 square kilometers (114 square miles). Prospecting has already begun and extraction should start soon. This deposit contains an estimated 650 million tons of very high quality bauxite.
“I think we came at the right time to Guinea, getting started with a very promising bauxite permit,” Girbal says. “That’s how we have been able to develop the Responsible Mining Alliance and get to where we are today.”
Earn valuable CPD credits
The slowdown of China’s economy and its declining demand for commodities is a “good wake-up call” for African economies, according to Geoffrey Qhena, CEO of South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Speaking at the recent World Economic Forum on Africa, Qhena said this situation presents an opportunity for the continent to figure out how to grow in the face of lower commodity prices.
Despite having vast resources, most African economies rely on imports for everything from food to clothing to electronics due to an under-developed manufacturing industry that faces many hurdles.
Johan Aurik, managing partner and chairman of consulting firm A.T. Kearney, said local manufacturing is an enormous “missed opportunity”. Aurik observed Africa’s shortcoming in manufacturing has to do with inefficiencies across the value chain, such as the sourcing of raw materials, distribution and innovation.
“When people think about production or about manufacturing they see a factory… and that’s the wrong image because it is often the least important part of what [we] are talking about.”
“If one part of the chain does not work well or is not optimal then the final product… often doesn’t even reach the final customer. These are very complex systems and that is why it is so hard to do. In Europe and in North America they had 200 years – or even longer – to grow the systems over time slowly. Africa needs to move faster,” noted Aurik.
Supply chain gaps one key hurdle
Namibian entrepreneur Ally Angula said she faces several hurdles operating manufacturing businesses. She is co-founder and managing director of Leap Namibia, a diversified group of companies involved in the agro-processing and fashion industries.
One of Leap’s divisions manufactures garments that are retailed through its network of My Republik branded outlets. She cited gaps in the supply chain and labour market as key hurdles. For instance, her company imports print labels for clothing from South Africa because they are not available locally.
“There are a lot of links within the supply chain [that] as a manufacturer you have to either fill those links yourself – or you pay double the price to fill those links,” Angula said.
“In some of our manufacturing industries that we are going into it is industries that we are creating from scratch.”
She explained how her company set up a manufacturing plant in a village in Namibia that employed locals. But when the rainy season started, the village did not have power for three weeks. While this was a fate the locals were used to, it was distressing for her business.
“Unfortunately for a manufacturing entity you can’t be without power for three weeks.”
Technology vs employment
Technology could help address some of the challenges in Africa’s manufacturing sector, however, the panelists argued there should be a multifaceted approach that involves both new technologies and employment. Innovation that excludes human labour, the IDC’s Qhena warned, would leave behind millions who desperately need jobs.
“The important [thing] is to create real jobs, sustainable work. Yes, it is true that technology if it is introduced too quickly often has a negative effect on unemployment. You see that in many places around the world – for instance, online retail is replacing many retail jobs. But over the long run they tend to be replaced with other types of work.”
Need to highlight manufacturing success stories
Although it involves various elements – from product design to production to retail – manufacturing is not as hard as people make it seem, said Angula. Once the process is broken into digestible parts, people become more inspired to go into industry.
“What we have experienced is exposure plays such a big role. We have had many people come through to our company to see what it is that we are doing. Once you have had the conversation the person will say to you: ‘But I didn’t know it was so easy to make clothes’ or ‘I didn’t know it was so easy to dehydrate an onion product and get that on the shelves’.”
“We need to be showcasing a lot more in terms of the success stories on the continent when it comes to manufacturing… That will motivate people to get into the different industries,” she added.
The African Association for Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) says there is need for the continent to improve in areas of waste management.
The AAPAM delegation from Kenya led by Ronald Jumbe said waste management was cardinal because the environment in economic zones on the continent was being negatively impacted.
Mr Jumbe said this during a conducted tour of the Lusaka South Multi Facility Economic Zone (LS-MFEZ) in Lusaka on Thursday by 45 public administrators and managers.
He said the LS-MFEZ plan was a good initiative which would bring in foreign exchange for the country as it was not only meant for local but export market as a whole.
Mr Jumbe said the Kenyan delegation was eager to learn how Zambia had implemented the economic zone.
He said Kenya had huge industrial Export Processing Zones (EPZ) that utilise local raw materials, in terms of labour and human resource to manufacture products for both local and export markets in the region.
“Countries in this region need to improve in the area of waste management. This is because the environment in economic zones in most countries around the region is being impacted negatively,” he said.
Mr Jumbe said another experience his team learnt was that local people were involved in the LS-MFEZ process which was a different concept in Kenya.
He urged LS-MFEZ management to continue upholding the involvement of local people.
Zambia, a member of international bodies and signatory to a number of international treaties, hosted the 37th AAPAM Roundtable meeting, where more than 500 delegates assembled in Lusaka to tackle and seek solutions to issues of public administration at continental level.
The annual conference was held at Mulungushi international Centre (MICC), from February 29 to March 4 under the theme, “Transforming Public Administration and Management (PAM) in order to contribute towards the Agenda 2063 within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.”