Breaking Records with a Can-do Attitude
Writer: Matthew Staff
Project Manager: Arron Rampling
African Underground Mining Services (AUMS) has been bringing Australian standards of mining to the African market for the best part of 10 years and is on the brink of even further success as new, record breaking, projects take off and the local talent pool expands.
Formed as a joint venture in 2007 between leading Australian mining service providers, Barminco and Ausdrill who have more than a quarter of a century’s experience operating in Africa – as the 100 percent Ausdrill owned, AMS – AUMS as a wholly owned subsidiary has optimised its expertise as an underground mining contractor ever since; subsequently changing the dynamic of the wider industry in the region.
The Company’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Blair Sessions explains: “Around 60 percent of the Australian underground mining market is completed using a contractor business model, with only 40 percent or so being run as an owner-operator mine.
“In Africa, it was the opposite so when a whole lot of underground mines opened up in the mid 2000s on the continent, everyone was initially favouring the owner-operator model without really exploring all the different contracting options around the world.”
This gap in the market gave AUMS the opportunity it was looking for to break into the domain and to replicate the same success it had achieved in Australia with Barminco; delivering a lower cost per unit offering, and developing a client’s mine at higher speed, better quality, and at lower unit cost than the market had anticipated or been exposed to previously.
“The key to our success has been our fast development,” Sessions continues. “We’ve broken world records while we’ve been in Africa as far as horizontal development is concerned. And because projects can traditionally happen quite slowly in Africa, the fact that we can get in there and develop faster than our competitors, and deliver access to the ore body a lot quicker, is a key driver for us.
“Our business philosophy is to take Australian standards and to put them in Africa. We don’t hold back from that because we have a hugely refined business model from our experience in Australia, which has been the driver for us picking up business in West Africa.”
Keeping options open
The speed in which AUMS has subsequently grown has been indicative of the market analysis carried out and the saturation of its business model in the region; ultimately surpassing expectations in terms of the influence the wider Group had hoped for.
Initially, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Guinea formed the crux of its regional saturation, but prospects in the east of the continent, as well as opportunities arising further north and south in Africa have emphasised the rapidly rising notoriety of AUMS.
Such geographic flexibility and the reputation it has fostered, has stemmed from a general versatility within the business’s mining operations, as Sessions affirms: “AUMS can provide to clients the full suite of underground mining services from feasibility to production status.
“We provide technical and engineering solutions to assist with feasibility, and all associated services in the construction of underground mines, specialising in high-speed development utilising industry-leading standards in process and plant, including specialised development and production techniques.
“The joint venture was originally formed to provide services to clients in West Africa, but has recently expanded this outlook to include opportunities in other regions of the African continent.”
Incorporating this outlook into the African mining mindset has subsequently resulted in the attainment of numerous landmark projects, ranging from record-breaking feats underground, to equally significant enrichment initiatives being carried out above the ground in the local communities.
Sessions notes: “Smaller community projects are very important to AUMS. We have committed to positively influencing the communities where we work, such as delivering local school expansions, the provision of sporting complexes and associated supplies, and some of our employees give their own time to coach and mentor in these programmes.”
Important from a reputation and localisation standpoint, its CSR initiatives complement its bread and butter achievements which continue to make waves in West Africa.
“Our work at Gara and Yalea are our two biggest projects working with Randgold in Mali,” Sessions adds. “We achieved the world record at Gara for our tunnelling work, and have recently mobilised on another great gold mine site called Yaramoko, working with Canadian company, Roxgold on their first project in Burkina Faso.”
Remaining proactive and flexible, with a refusal to rest on its laurels, have been pivotal facets of AUMS’ rapid rise in Africa, keeping abreast of all new industry trends and sector fluctuations.
These incorporate areas of health and safety, continuous improvement strategies amid market contractions and low commodity prices, and a heightened reliance on automation from a technical standpoint.
Chief among all trends however remains the necessity to retain a strong local emphasis within the business. Once employees are settled at AUMS they enjoy extensive training and development initiatives including comprehensive simulator experience to bring them up to speed, and a diverse approach to cater for the different languages and cultures entering the Company. Job one, however, is identifying said skills in the first place.
“Alongside bringing that Australian methodology into Africa, our second differentiator is the training programmes we have in place to develop the national workforce, and subsequently retain the ‘can-do’ culture in operating countries,” Sessions says. “It is a cornerstone of our business model because if we don’t look locally for these skills and develop them continuously, then our culture suffers, and so will our competitive advantage.
“We need to be heavily focused on nationalisation and training to deliver a skill level comparable with expatriate operators and it will continue to be one of our main drivers.”
Achieving more than 12 months and nearly two million man hours without a lost time injury highlights AUMS’ commitment to its employees’ satisfaction and safety, lending towards an overall goal to give them the skillsets to progress within the Company and take their expertise elsewhere across the Group.
After eight years, the fruits of this philosophy are already evident with Ghanaian expatriates now working in Burkina Faso, Malian workers now plying their trade in Ghana, and so on; all of which creates a sustainable pool of talent that will be imperative for AUMS and its future success in the region.
Sessions continues: “More than 85 percent of our workforce are locally employed, with internal development of all our staff a key priority for the business.
“The up-skilling of our national workforce is critical to our business success, and comprises the cornerstone of our business plan to ensure a highly-skilled, mobile, local workforce to take their skills further afield also as we develop into new markets in Africa.”
Quality and reliable supply
Leveraging local resources may be vital from an employment perspective, but when it comes to the supply chain and some of AUMS’ key business partnerships, the Company can leverage its international reputation.
While still looking to form local relationships where possible, management of the supply chain is carried out by the same senior personnel consulting for Barminco, with regular, longstanding suppliers almost treating the two entities as one of the same in regards to the quality demanded from the required equipment and machinery.
Sandvik, Caterpillar and Atlas Copco are three such partners with a global cachet themselves as AUMS thrives to find the perfect balance between optimum levels of quality, and concerted local impetus.
“We effectively look in the country first, and then West Africa, then Africa, then outside of Africa, when it comes to our supply chain,” Sessions says. “We do pretty well, and although it takes serious commitment to achieve the quality and reliability we demand, we have had some significant success stories as well with more than 60 percent of our supply now coming from within West Africa itself, and we have reached 90 percent-plus levels of country dependency.”
The Company’s Ghanaian mesh supplier, Wire Weaving Industries Ghana Ltd, is one such success story, having been adopted and trusted by AUMS to deliver a key component of its operations, and subsequently being developed up to international, western standards with automated manufacturing facilities delivering products equal to anywhere in the world.
Creating a can-do ethos throughout the Group – across its employees and suppliers – is a philosophy which has already proved defining for Barminco in Australia, and AUMS is now at a stage where it adopts the exact same procedures across mining, safety and training in Africa.
“We believe we offer the best service in Australia already as Barminco, and we’re now delivering the same, if not better, performance in Africa,” Sessions adds. “As our nationalisation strategy continues to improve the local workforce and our skills network, we are in a very flexible position to assess opportunities as they come.”
The resulting ability comprises being able to get on the ground with unparalleled pace, before working through the planning and construction phases with clients and helping them deliver optimum output from each project.
Being able to mobilise so quickly and effectively is once again testament to AUMS’ flexibility, and the COO pinpoints this attribute as the key to maintaining its success moving forward.
Sessions concludes: “If we’re not flexible, we’d end up stagnant and because in Africa things can generate slowly before springing to life all of a sudden, if you’re not ready to jump and get started, you will miss opportunities.
“We always ensure we have a strong order book of equipment readily available in front of us so that if we are required to start a job quickly we can do so, with the extended Ausdrill and Barminco networks behind us.
“There’s a real requirement to make sure we’re fully available, with a can-do attitude, to be able to respond to a client’s wants and needs, because it’s more important in Africa than anywhere else in the world to have that ability, and we have made sure we can do just that.”