Youngest local mining manager talks Skorpion

Speaking of rising phenomenally through the corporate ranks, Skorpion Zinc Mine’s newly-appointed 31-year-old mining manager, Timo Ipangelwa, is a living testament.

The young and vibrant man who hails from Omagongati Village, Oshana Region now occupies a coveted position in Vedanta Resources (mother company to Skorpion Zinc ) - a global metals and mining company.

It is also the largest zinc producer in Africa as well as a major contributor of gross domestic product (GDP) in Namibia.

Ipangelwa is full of praise for Vedanta Resources for creating opportunities for young Namibians to take up key positions within it, while driving productivity in the best interest of various stakeholders.

We caught up with him to share with us his insights.

The rise

PF: What does your portfolio entail in this giant mining company, being a newly-appointed mine manager?

TI: I am in charge of the entire mine and mining technical services, which includes the geological, mine planning survey functions, as well as production output. Besides that, I oversee the maintenance of all earth moving equipment on site. However, the biggest portfolio is safety. We prioritise safe production as should any mining company.

PF: Would you say yours is a hot seat?

TI: Indeed. My role entails both a legal and social responsibility. I ensure that the welfare of our employees as well as their safety is taken care of and the ground rules adhered to. That way, we will rest assured that our operations will continue sustainably and profitably for the years to come.

PF: What are some of the steps you went through to get to where you are today?

TI: From the onset, the ‘mining manager’ position at Skorpion Zinc used to be held by expatriates due to the shortage of skills in Namibia.

I climbed the ladder from being a graduate engineer to a production engineer at Namdeb, having been involved in alluvial mining. I left Namdeb to broaden my knowledge and experience in base metals at Skorpion Zinc where I was appointed as the production manager. At the same time, I was an understudy to the mining manager for two and a half years, which led to my appointment as the new manager mining manager.

Much praise goes to Vedanta Resources and Skorpion Zinc for ensuring that there is a training agenda that addresses skills shortage and that ensures that Namibians rise to top positions, as was my case.

PF: Where exactly do you fall with regards to the structures of Skorpion Zinc?

TI: Skorpion Zinc consists of Skorpion Zinc Mining Company and Namzinc Refinery, both under the leadership of a general manager.

The person who is overall in charge is the general manager who has other key positions reporting to him including but not limited to the metallurgical manager, finance manager, the HR manager and the mining manager.

My position as the mining manager is part of the executive team at Skorpion Zinc/Vedanta.

PF: What does your appointment mean to you as a young Namibian?

TI: It is indeed a first for me but look; mining needs experience, high degree of technical and leadership capability. There are times when companies mainly go for experience and ignore technical potential or leadership acumen.

With regards to Vedanta Resources, there is a robust approach in identifying talent (my potential was identified through the same approach).

Yes, I might lack 15 or 20 years of experience but that has not deterred my team and I from making significant strides in ensuring productivity and high, consistent safety standards. I am grateful for the appointment. Mine should be an inspiration to young aspiring miners out there.

The platforms are available and other companies should emulate what Skorpion/Vedanta does to ensure that they develop talent to enable sustainable operations. Complaining about lack of skills is not good enough, there must be deliberate actions geared to address the lack of human resources capacities.

PF: Did you ever envision yourself as a mining manager while growing up?

TI: Having grown up in a rural village where most men worked in the mines, I always had a strong desire to do so some day. My main inspiration was the fact that most of those men were breadwinners. And given my immediate and extended family’s financial situation at the time, my desire was to [one day] be capable of taking care of them.

Since mining was all I grew up knowing, I thought going to university to study mining engineering would position me well to be able to address their plight.

After finishing high school at Oshigambo High School, I realised that mining was indeed the backbone of this country’s economy. So I grabbed the first opportunity to study mining engineering.

I am a very ambitious individual, and being a mining manager is a big achievement. However, I must say it is part of the milestones I have planned in my aspirations to be an individual of note in the mining industry.

My next goal is to become a general manager at a big mining group. Being that Vedanta Resources is a multinational company, which is expanding within the borders of Namibia and elsewhere, I am positive that I will be able to head an entire mining company in future.

PF: What is your vision for the company as the new mining manager?

TI: Skorpion Zinc’s vision is to be the leader of excellence in the global zinc market. This vision is informed from the basis that we are currently the leading company in Africa. We would like to maintain that and be recognised as trend setters in the world.

To contribute to this vision, my team and I will continuously review our processes, identify gaps for opportunities that will enable us to continuously improve amid challenges of increase in operational costs and low commodity prices.

We would like Skorpion Zinc to continue contributing to the economic growth of Namibia and becoming the mining industry’s reference in terms of benchmarking.

One of Skorpion Zinc’s greatest achievements since its inception is that it has never recorded any fatalities and we would like to maintain that. On the socio-economic side, we need to ensure that Skorpion Zinc continues to contribute significantly towards the upliftment of local communities.

PF: What were some of the challenges you faced in your rise to this position and how did you overcome them?

TI: The first challenge was pursuing my mining engineering studies after high school, in 1998. Initially, I could not get funding but with the help of the mining industry bursary scheme, I got a scholarship to study in South Africa.

Obviously, completing university studies and starting right from the bottom of the corporate ladder was tough.

As a mining engineer fresh from university, the greatest challenge would be that the people you find [in the workplace] don’t believe in you and what you are capable of doing. The mentality is; “This is just a little boy. What can he do to create a mark?”

To explain what was happening, take the example of a parent and their child; even when the child is grown, the parent will always perceive them as their ‘little baby’.

When you start off, people don’t see you rising and/or becoming a better employee. They tend to focus on the people who have been there before and they do not realise the positive impact you, as the new employee, impose on the organisation.

Be it as it may, it was not necessarily a bumpy road all the way. There were a number of people that assisted in crafting and polishing the Timo you see today.

PF: Despite all these challenges, what has been your secret to success?

TI: I believe that everyone has the potential to reach greater heights through teamwork. My successes are in no way an individual achievements but a product of thorough harnessing of benefits offered by teams.It reminds me of a famous quote by our Founding President that: ‘A people united, striving to achieve common good for all members of society, will always emerge victorious’. True indeed.

Once you pick the right team, play the teams to their strength then success is imminent. Perhaps the challenge there is that you have to keep people motivated and bring them to a level where they understand what the collective goals are. Once goals are clearly communicated and understood, chances of failure are strongly reduced.

It’s mostly de-motivated employees who never buy into the collective vision of the organisation for which they work, mainly because they are/were excluded in setting up of the targets and thus cannot own them.

PF: How do you handle the pressure of such a demanding working environment?

TI: When we think of pressure, we sometimes don’t think about the main objectives of the tasks at hand. One may look at pressure as having a heavy workload, when in fact it is the goals and objectives that should excite you and keep you going. I disengage immediately if my intellectual capacity is not tested and challenged.

As long as you are goal-orientated and focused, it becomes easier to handle pressure. In the mining industry, we work with strict deadlines where any delays could have fatal consequences. It could either be in project executions and loss of production, which would in turn result in loss of potential income; hence pressure needs to be controlled as it can negatively affect one’s health.

I must say, I am one of the luckiest people around because I have a lot of friends who keep me going. Above all, my wife and son make it easier for me to handle busy and demanding schedules; they make sure I am recharged and full of energy to last me all day.

Mining business

PF: Could you tell us more about Skorpion Zinc/Vedanta Resources?

TI: Vedanta Resources only came to Namibia recently after acquiring Skorpion Zinc Mine. It is a London Stock Exchange (LSE) listed, diversified metals and mining group with extensive interest in zinc, aluminium, copper, lead, silver iron ore and commercial energy and has a global talent pool of about 31 000 employees.

PF: Given that Skorpion is Vedanta Resources’ first investment in Namibia, what related benefits has it had for Namibians?

TI: Attracting investment is not an easy thing. Before we look at the benefits it has brought thus far, let’s commend the Government for creating a stable investment climate which enables mining houses like Vedanta Resources to invest in Namibia.

When Vedanta Resources took over Skorpion Zinc, the mine and refinery closure was imminent. Vedanta came on board and significantly invested in exploration; both in the current mining pit as well as in its surrounding areas.

It has also invested in training and development - I am a product of that. The training and the development programmes are broad in the sense that they are not only for the top level employees but cut across the entire workforce.

Vedanta Resources has also invested a lot in corporate social responsibility with a strong focus on stakeholder engagement and management. In my view, Vedanta has put strong emphasis on governance and thus has systems in place to ensure that business is conducted with a high level of integrity.

PF: If you were to compare Namibia’s mining industry issues with those prevailing in South Africa (loss of thousands of jobs following last year’s strikes), how could these investments help cement local industry issues?

TI: We must not ignore what recently happened in South Africa. We must make sure that the issues are well documented and communicated to relevant parties to avoid repeats anywhere in the world.

We need to continuously engage all stakeholders while conducting our business. Communication is key.

Skorpion Zinc’s approach is very strong in the sense that even when most companies were retrenching, we were recruiting and training. We believe that to be sustainable and competitive, our employees must be our biggest assets. Some of the goals we set for ourselves are only achievable through the development of our people.

We maximise the value of what our employees have to offer and ensure the sustainability of operations.

Retrenching the workforce is often the easy way out when the going gets tough. However, in many cases, it is just a lazy way of hoping to be competitive. We need to create value with the people we already have, rather than shedding off jobs. I am not entirely saying that retrenchment shouldn’t happen at all.

PF: That said, what would you say are the company values?

TI: Our values are entrepreneurship, excellence, trust, growth and inclusiveness. The biggest one of them all, which is very close to my heart, is trust.

Since Vedanta Resources took over Skorpion Zinc, we have seen excellent professional relationships between the employers and the employees. That is very important, considering the prevailing strikes in the mining industry at large.

Fortunately, this has not occurred here yet and it is not by a miracle but a by-product of excellent constructive and collaborative engagements between the union, its leadership and all the employees.

PF: What is (roughly) the lifespan of your mine?

TI: Though we currently have an existing pit running up to [around] 2016/17, we will continue to do more exploration within the current pit. But the most important thing is that our world-class refinery does 100% beneficiation.

We are in the process of initiating projects that are aimed at making sure that the refinery does not just process the zinc oxide that we find in the current pit during our operations but also zinc sulphides.

Note, zinc sulphides are available not only in Namibia but also in neighbouring countries. We have the Gergarub deposit from which we are still actively doing development with our partner, Rosh Pinah Zinc Mine. We hope that the operation of this mine comes to life in the future.

I am very confident that through these projects we will be able to operate the refinery post zinc oxides and create value for Namibians and shareholders for years to come.

PF: What challenges does Skorpion Zinc face at the moment?

TI: Skorpion Zinc’s lifespan is perhaps the biggest challenge. We cannot afford closing down this operation because of its contribution to the Karas Region and Namibian nation as a whole. We need to create opportunities through this. The projects I mentioned earlier need to deliver the required results if at all we are to overcome our challenges.

Other challenges such as the increase in operational costs due to the cost of power, sulphur and fuel require us to continuously improve our extraction and processing processes if we are to fly with the eagles of the mining industry.

PF: Tell us a bit more about your world-class refinery.

TI: It is the largest and the only refinery of its kind in Africa. We are the only mining operation in Namibia that does 100% beneficiation. This has allowed Skorpion Zinc or Vedanta Resources (if you like) to create more employment by answering the Government’s call of beneficiation.

It is a zero-effluent plant - there is no waste discharged into the environment. The other significant issue is the excellent safety performance, which is the best in the mining industry.

In addition, the company has been awarded numerous certifications in environmental management system, quality management system and occupational health as well as safety management.

PF: At what cost did this come at?

TI: The initial capital in setting up this world class refinery has over the years been enhanced through a number of debottlenecking exercises aimed at maximizing value. In 2010 Vedanta Resources paid about N$5b to Anglo American for Skorpion Zinc as part of its acquisition of Anglo Zinc’s assets.

One must admire the vision of this company, especially at the time when we were getting out of the financial and economic crisis and the mine life was not at all promising. However, they had the courage to go ahead with the transaction.

PF: Tell us more about the beneficiation.

TI: The first process starts with grade control where zinc-containing material is identified through sampling. The zinc oxide is then hauled to different stockpiles for effective blending.

The material is sent through the crusher where it is crushed and milled to finer material. This is followed by leaching, where the zinc is dissolved in sulphuric acid. The solution is then sent to neutralisation where impurity species such as manganese and iron are precipitated by the introduction of limestone.

The zinc-rich solution from neutralisation goes through solvent extraction where it is further purified and upgraded to an electrolyte used for zinc electrowinning. This process involves the application of electricity to plate zinc in solution onto zinc cathodes. The zinc cathodes are then charged into melting furnaces, after which the liquid zinc is casted into 25kg ingot, which is 99.995% zinc metal.

This is the only metal mining and refining of its kind in Africa that is done by a state-of-the-art technology.

If Skorpion Zinc were just another mining company, we would mine the ore, take the concentrate and then ship it outside the country. But that would have a negative spin in terms of employment opportunities, both directly and indirectly. The process, as it is, has enabled us to add value.

That is the biggest thing that has enabled us to extract maximum benefits from it, rather than exporting concentrate. Our products are fully labelled and are proudly Namibian, something which other companies in Africa should emulate.

PF: In South Africa, calls to abandon the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) concept grows, as experts say, it is creating a new aristocracy instead of creating value for the entire community. In your opinion, does BEE really work? And to what extent is Skorpion Zinc involved in it?

TI: When we talk about BEE, we have to look at the intention of the BEE policy. BEE is meant to empower previously-disadvantaged Namibians. You can empower Namibians from different angles. First, you could look at training and development, which Skorpion Zinc is actively involved in.

Within your procurement department, there are goods and services to procure from either Namibian companies or specifically from BEE companies.

In this case, about 70% of Skorpion Zinc procurement is spent within Namibia. We also have a procurement BEE rating that goes with our procurement drive.

With regards to ownership, I will lean towards the establishment of Epangelo mining company as a good vehicle to driving part of BEE in mining industry. I must commend Government for such a good initiative.

We recently entered into an understanding for joint exploration and prospecting for base metals with Epangelo, which will mean that should any benefit comes from these exercises, ordinary Namibians will benefit from their own natural resources.

In my view, it is the best vehicle for driving benefits to all the people of Namibia. As soon as mining companies start to involve Epangelo Mining Company more, the benefits will eventually get into the national coffers, which would either be used in the building of our infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads but would also help in the upliftment and welfare of the people.

In addition, mining companies need to extend ownership to their employees through properly managed schemes rather than running to particular individuals to win stakes in the mines, which does not accelerate poverty alleviation at the end of the day.

PF: Are you really making headway, with regards to your corporate social responsibility initiatives?

TI: In my view, if there is something that has been ignored for some time, it is corporate social responsibility investments from mining companies.

As mining companies and responsible corporate citizens, we should ask ourselves; ‘Aside from our mining licenses that we get from Government, would the communities we operate in give us social license if they could be given that responsibility?’

The truth is that very few companies will actually pass that test, as there are no tangible proofs of benefits we can provide. Corporate social investment is just as important as the core functions such as extraction and processing.

In this era of sustainability it should be the part of core business, as we stand to be condemned and shunned by the next generation for being selfish. We need to support and encourage Government and the communities around us to join us either in partnerships or allow us to give them projects that can uplift their livelihoods.

With regards to Skorpion Zinc, the significant projects that we have embarked upon are in the areas of education, health and welfare of communities.

In terms of health, we recently completed the building of the state-of-the-art Rosh Pinah State Clinic. This meant that Rosh Pinah community members will never be driven to Lüderitz to receive healthcare.

For the communities in which we operate, we have been involved in science fairs, not to forget the Keetmanshoop Stadium upgrade. One of our major projects of last year was the Skorpion Zinc Goat Project, which is aimed at reducing poverty by enabling the Karas Region inhabitants to support themselves through an innovative and sustainable strategy that is socially and economically sound. Last year alone, we spent around N$7.6m on corporate social investment, a substantial increase from previous years.

We also need to ensure that we involve the Government as a key and strategic partner in our corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. Projects will never be sustainable if we don’t involve the Government or communities at risk, as well as non-governmemental organisations (NGOs) that require these services. Otherwise, you would end up building white elephants.

Only when partnerships are reached between Government and the private sector will programmes be sustainable. We do need to implement projects in such a way that they are able to survive on their own.

PF: What training and development strategies do you have at Skorpion Zinc for young Namibians to minimise skills shortages, which often lead to dependence on expatriates?

TI: I mentioned training and development earlier but did not go into the details. We have a number of programmes on site. We have the part-time assistance programme aimed at encouraging employees to take up part time courses in their field of expertise.

We have bursary schemes that are offered for scare skills such as chartered accountants, engineers, geologists etc. Currently we have students studying in Namibian institutions of higher learning, South Africa as well as India.

We also have a number of scholarships for our apprentices who are studying at NIMT. We are, however, not only limited to apprentices who will eventually work for Skorpion Zinc but we also sponsor additional personnel for the industry in Namibia.

The company also identifies employees with high potential talents early in their careers. It then positions them on a fast growth track to take up leadership roles within the group through enhanced responsibilities.

We have succession plans and understudy programmes that are aimed at skills transfer. At the inception of Skorpion Zinc, we had over 70 expatriates but now, we are talking less than half of that figure (29).

This came as a result of our deliberate efforts to transfer skills to locals and reduce the need for expatriates. We still maintain good contact with expartriates who have left us and they too are happy to know they completed their assignments and still left skilled professionals in charge of the jobs.

There has been a lot of bad publicity regarding our national education system but we equally need to appreciate the fact that our education system has produced significant employable citizens.

Other than the above, as the private sector, we don’t need to be involved in training and development only when people get on our books but we need to foster relationships with academic institutions. Only when we are part of the curriculum development and part of projects that students are busy with will we get the graduates with the expected attributes in the work place.

We can always choose to be critical of the quality of education, not realising that students only go to university for four years and thereafter they are part of the industry for good. We indirectly are lowering the skills level in the industry.

I am fortunate to be part of the Polytechnic of Namibia curriculum advisory board for the School of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, which gives me confidence for the expected products.

The future

PF: What is the vision for Skorpion Zinc in five to 10-years’ time?

TI: Our vision is to be the leader of excellence in the global zinc markets by 2015 and beyond. This clearly informs that we are already number one in Africa by being the producer and partner of choice.

We need to be relevant and competitive in retaining and attracting the right skills to be the employer of choice and thereby bring to life projects mentioned earlier. These projects are key to our sustainability.

PF: What would you want your legacy to be at Skorpion Zinc and beyond?

TI: I would like to be remembered for being part of the team at Skorpion Zinc that achieved world-class status in all facets of its operation. This will be achieved if and when we stop saying, ‘it cannot be done’ in whatever we do. I am gradually letting the statement out of my thoughts and that requires a very good understanding.

PF: Your last thoughts?

TI: We have seen accelerating changes and ever-shifting fortunes in the mining industry, driven by new technologies, global competition and heightened consumer expectations. I am happy for the Government as well as investors like Vedanta Resources who come into the picture with great workable aspirations.

That said, we need to assist each other in ensuring that we sustainably, yet profitably exploit the mining resources for generations to come.

PF: Thank you, Sir. It was a great pleasure interviewing you. PF