“Botswana’s got vast coal resources.”
It’s a simple enough statement from Andre Boje, the chief executive of Minergy Coal (BSE:MIN). So why then has it got so little production?
The answer comes in two related parts. The first is that as a landlocked country, shipping out a bulk commodity like coal hasn’t always struck potential miners as an easy undertaking. The second is that Botswana is so well endowed with diamonds that almost all the attention thus far has gone there.
But that’s changing now as miners recognise that the old model of planning to site power stations near coal projects, just to make the coal economic to mine, was getting it all back to front.
That’s where Minergy comes in. Minergy has a huge 2bn tonne-plus resource at its Masama project, north of Gaborone but still not far from the South African border.
For the time being though, it’s not the size that will count, but the quality of the high-grade 390mln tonne seams at the heart of the deposit.
“It’s a vast resource,” says Boje. “But at 2bn tonnes it’s too big. What we do have is a 390 mln tonne resource of low strip ratio, high grade thermal coal.”
The plan is simple enough: to mine and process at a rate of 1.2mln saleable tonnes per year and sell it into South Africa, to the big industry in the north of the country in North West, Limpopo Provinces and beyond. That’s close enough to make the economics of shipping viable, and a serious enough hub for the demand to be there.
Eskom itself, says Boje, has the spare capacity to take the coal. But as far as Botswana’s been concerned, no one’s turned up with a viable plan to ship it over in a profitable way.
Boje, though, brings years of coal market experience to the project. He started in the coal trading business in the 1990s and moved onwards and upwards until his company, Wescoal (JSE:WSL), was generating revenues of US$200mln per year.
Most of his team from Wescoal has moved across to Minergy with him, so the African skills base inside Minergy now rivals that of any smaller capitalised company south of the Sahara.
Still, Botswana is new country for Boje, and there have been a couple of new experiences. One of them has been a listing on the Botswana stock exchange, which local operators often find expedient in that it allows local pension funds, which are governed by strict rules, to come in in a fairly big way.
For a company like Minergy, still in its early stages, the US$10mln that Botswana’s pension funds have invested for equity has been significant. They will be diluted when the company lists on AIM, as planned, but the funds themselves are ready for that.
By that time, the market should have come to a clearer understanding of the real upside at Masama. Under the current timetable, the final permits should come in at the end of March, and Minergy will then break ground in July and ship its first saleable coal in September.
“Within three months of that we plan to be producing at the rate of 1.2mln saleable tonnes per year,” says Boje.
That production will be supported by a coal price environment that’s become more benign since Minergy first got onto the ground in Botswana a couple of years ago.
“When we started the project, coal prices were weak,” says Boje. “Now they’re stronger the project is even more attractive.”
If coal were to drop back to 2016 prices, then the planned 1.2mln tonne output at Masama would still be economic. But in the current environment, expansion beyond that is certainly on the cards.
“In five years’ time Botswana will be exporting 10mln tonnes of coal,” says Boje. “We will be the first producers and we would like to have 4-6mln tonnes of that.
No doubt there’ll be plenty of interest later in the year, when Aim investors get their chance to take a serious look and put up some serious money.