African mining investment prospects improving


Africa’s mining sector has taken off in the past few years, with companies that may once have thought the continent too risky now keen to invest, despite the continuing challenges of doing business there.

With demand for commodities such as iron ore set to jump in the next decade as industrialisation and urbanisation increase demand, miners are increasingly turning to Africa.
“We believe many African countries will be well placed to meet this demand,” David Joyce, head of expansion projects for Rio Tinto’s iron ore group, said at an industry conference this week in Perth, Australia.

The move has coincided with an increase in stability in some parts of the continent.

African Lion, a venture capital fund that has been investing in African resources projects for over 10 years, said it had seen a gradual upswing in the number of African countries it considers to be low risk from 10 in 1999 to 14 in 2011.

Ten to 15 years ago, Africa was “just too high risk — you couldn’t raise capital for African projects; you’d get no credit on the Australian stock exchange for progress you were making there,” Rick Yeates, managing director for Middle Island Resources, said, citing the perception of Africa as “corrupt and warring” as chief concerns at the time.

But the pendulum has swung the other way in recent years, Yeates said, in part due to efforts by African governments to make regulations more transparent and consistent.
“West Africa last year was flavour of the month; everyone had to have a project in West Africa if they wanted to attract the attention of fund managers,” said Yeates, who spent 23 years as a mining industry consultant.

In Australia, the number of companies with African projects listed on the Australian stock exchange has jumped from 40 to 170 in the last nine years, according to industry publication Paydirt media.

But those in the industry said there were still some regions that prompted concern for miners, with South Africa and Zimbabwe, which have both introduced laws to increase black ownership, singled out for criticism.

South Africa is currently debating mine nationalisation and has also targeted giving previously excluded blacks a greater share of ownership.

But Sandile Nogxina, an advisor to the South African mines minister, said the issue of nationalisation would be “put to bed” by mid-2012 when the ruling party meets to debate the issue.

In the meantime, nationalisation was not government policy, Nogxina said.
“Nationalisation is not policy for South Africa, and there is no government process that is formulating a policy on nationalisation,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s minister of economic planning and investment promotion, Tapiwa Mashakada, also tried to reassure investors at the conference, saying a recent law mandating 51 percent local ownership was “flexible”.
“It is a flexible law, and investors are given time to comply. It’s not about seizure of assets. It’s not about expropriation,” Mashakada said.

Taxes were also high on the list of miners’ worries.
“In the past year, at least 10 African countries have either increased or announced an intention to increase the take of the state from resource projects,” said resources lawyer Michael Blakiston, a partner at Gilbert and Tonkin Lawyers.

Blakiston said African states were asking for larger chunks of industry profits in the wake of high commodity prices that have pushed some miners’ profits to record highs.
“A state should not be so seduced by the performance of these companies, as they do not represent the endeavours of the industry as a whole … The mining industry as a whole has not necessarily been making super profits,” he said.