Rikus Grobler | Feb 8, 2018 | 0
Mineral beneficiation as the core of an industrialisation policy.
Vision 2030 is designed around the premise that prosperity for all can become a reality over the next two decades if we industrialise the country following the model that has proven itself successful in Asia. When our economic planners punt this idea, they see factory cities where hundreds of thousands of happy, well-paid workers spend their shifts in row upon row of hi-tech, well-appointed, glass-covered, sterile production lines, turning out millions of the latest electronic gadgets people with incomes generally like to buy.
But there is a different model of industrialisation and it is one, I believe, may be more appropriate for us in our current point in the development curve. It is the reduction and beneficiation of minerals, producing a more refined version of what the factories want, but not yet at the level of refinement that can go to retail shelves.
Let’s take a very simple example. A steel mill would typically buy a raw form of iron, whether it is ingots or pellets, which it then runs through a smelter to make it pliable and draw huge flat sheets of iron of all dimensions from the molten mass. These “sheets” are nothing like the fine, even sheets of metal one buys retail. Instead they are rough beams or broad plates that must still be put through several more processes before they become flat sheets or rectangular beams. These in turn must be processed further to turn them into railway tracks, beams, profiles of all description, pipes, and what have you. When the iron leaves the back door of the steel mill, it is usually in a form that can enter the wholesale trade before it eventually ends up in steelyards and hardware shops where you and I, and hundreds of contractors of various kinds, buy whatever we need, to make a specific product or structure.
When we think of factories, we typically consider that part of the value chain almost at the end. From iron ore produced by a mine, to the sludge that must go to the steel mill, there is a complex metallurgical reduction process before it becomes raw iron. It is this part of the chain which I believe provides us with an opportunity to industrialise, as long as we realise it must be done in bulk – real massive, impressive bulk that ensures economies of scale.
Some mines do their own mineral reduction, at least up to a point, but just as many mines focus on mining ore, and selling ore. If we can adjust our definition of industrialisation that it starts at that point where the mine (any mine) has brought its rough ore to the surface, crushed it, hammered it, leeched it and extracted that part which is generally referred to by the name of the metal it represents, then a secondary phase of refining, reworking, re-call-it-what-you-want it, is required before it becomes a product of which the properties are closer to that required by the foundries and the steel mills. And this applies to every mineral and every metal.
So, if we can see that the value chain consists of several bigger and smaller links, and that there is room for value-adding (and job creation) in every link, then we can design an industrialisation policy that identifies and focus on those links that would normally be described as rough or course.
In other words, I am saying let us shift our focus from the high-end view of what factories are and what they do, to the very first value-adding steps in the process of refinement, and take the ore, turn it into a very rough extract, maybe refine it a step or two more, but basically still ending up with a form of the metal that can only be described as “raw”. I want us to shift our industrialisation policy from “refined” to “rough bulk”. These are also factories, and they also need thousands of people to work in them. But they are technologically of a more modest nature.
There is one major catch: Industries like these can only operate profitably on really massive scale. Bulk is the operative word and not bulk in the sense of not-packaged, rather bulk in the sense of really huge, huge volumes. Processing by the millions of tonnes, instead of a few hundred tonnes at a time.
To offer this type of industry to the rest of the world, a certain level of skill and technology is required. If we decide, by official policy, we are letting go of the “refined” factory model, then by implication we start specialising in the “rough bulk” application. For this we need all sorts of engineers and technicians, but because so many of the processes at this level are related, it means there is a mobility between skills and industries.
And as soon as we start developing a certain competence in “rough bulk” processing, then we do not need to stare ourselves blind at only those minerals mined in Namibia. We can then move onto the next niveau where we can reduce and refine any mineral, mined anywhere in the world, as long as we can do it in the required bulk volumes.