Partnership for Prosperity: The Story Behind Sierra Leone’s 476-Carat Diamond (Part 2)

Mining and Exploration
01/12/2017 14:42

On November 9 in Sierra Leone, Meya Mining recovered a 476-carat Type IIa, D color diamond (the highest category of purity & color) from the very first sample of ore they put through their processing plant. An astounding recovery. The Diamond Loupe sat down with Jan Joubert, Group Head of Resources at majority stakeholder Trustco and CEO of Meya Mining, and Ibrahim Sorie Kamara, of the original license-holder and 49% shareholder Germinate SL Limited, in the offices of Koin International in Antwerp, the company that will market and tender the exceptional stone, named the "Meya Prosperity". What follows is Part 2 of the latest positive diamond story to emerge from Sierra Leone. Part 1 is available here.

Holding out his phone, Ibrahim Sorie Kamara asked us, “Would you like to speak to the minister?”  He was referring to Alhaji Minkailu Mansaray, Minister of Mines and Mineral Resources of Sierra Leone, an opportunity we were not about to pass up.

The Diamond Loupe (DL): “What does the discovery of these two large diamonds (709 & 476-carats) this past year mean for Sierra Leone?”

Minister Mansaray: “It means we have immense resource potential. There is excellent investor trust in Sierra Leone. The proceeds from the sale will have a knock-on effect for investors and government, and a direct impact on the community where they were found. It highlights the great opportunity to partner with Sierra Leone in terms of resources. It is all about getting the right taxes from the right value.  Meya and the people at Koin clearly know exactly what we want from this remarkable diamond - the best price, great publicity for our diamonds and the opportunity to showcase Sierra Leone’s transparency and accountability to the people.”

DL (to Ibrahim Kamara): He sounds proud, and excited.

Ibrahim Kamara (ISK): Of course, even the President was beaming with pride when I briefed him on the find and the progress we have made. We are all excited about this opportunity. Not just about what the diamond is going to fetch when Koin holds the tender, but what it is going to do for us as a brand, as a company and ultimately as a country.

Changing the narrative of a generation

DL: This license has been around for a long time, but nobody has developed it. How did it end up in your hands?

ISK: I worked for Octea for eight years in various capacities, including Admin and Public Relations Manager, Chief Communications Officer and latterly, President. So, I have been involved in community relations, communication, information dissemination and corporate affairs in the region for a long time. When I left Octea in 2015, I realized there might be an opportunity to get this license. At the time, many licenses were available, but I went specifically for this license because I had a sense of its potential. The asset is very close to Koidu and we always thought its geology is akin to Koidu’s.

When I realized it was up for grabs, I immediately put in an application. At the time, I had only had my reputation, track record and the President’s keen desire to empower young Sierra Leoneans, which was reflected in both the composition of his cabinet and his Local Content Policy, to rely on. This, and the hope that my message would resonate with members of the Minerals Advisory Board (MAB). The other applicant was a company comprised of people that previously held the license, but did not develop it. Given their history and the novelty my application represented, the MAB called us in for an interview to provide us an opportunity to convince them.

DL: You went in without any backing? That sounds intimidating.

ISK: It was. But I had been thinking about it for a long time, so I was ready. I said it’s simple. Over the years, I have acquired the right education, gained the relevant experience and exposure in the industry and established useful connections. Over the years, the inability to combine these three ingredients has partly impeded Sierra Leoneans from participating at the highest level in the mining industry. So, I told them: “I stand before you not just as me, but as a representative of a generation that for some reason, for years, has believed they are not good enough to take the lead, a generation that has always felt more comfortable as a supporting cast. Maybe it is because the prior generation did not have many opportunities to take the lead, and thus had to be content with a place behind the expats or foreign investors. I am here today to seek the opportunity to demonstrate that we can be better than a supporting cast.”

I told them, “If I get this license, many young Sierra Leoneans will emerge from the shadows of foreign owners/investors and pursue opportunities like this, which can only be good for our country. If I do not get it, then we will continue to recede further into their shadows, which will not bode well for the future of our country. So, give me this opportunity to inspire a generation and ignite the real engine of our country’s economic transformation. I am not going to tell you I already have the funds required to develop the asset, but if you give me this license you would have empowered me to go out there and find the people that share my vision and objective, so we can partner and do something real.”

DL: In other words, you just laid it on the line.

ISK: I did, but not just for me, and not because I might make some money, but because I want to prove what I set out to prove. If you give an opportunity like this to a young Sierra Leonean who understands the industry, is committed to the country and has the ability to bring in the right partners, he/she will deliver. I hope my story inspires many more Sierra Leoneans to rise to the occasion and seize the moment. It is my firm belief that the development of my country depends more on us than on the government. They must do their bit, but the rest is up to us. Until young people recognise their role in this equation and stake a claim for participation in every facet of our economy, we will continue to struggle. But if this philosophy catches on with the rest of my generation, we can make a huge difference.

The foundation of an economy cannot be built on foreign investment alone. Is it necessary? Of course it is, and Sierra Leone badly needs more credible investors. But the risk with foreign investors is that if things go bad, the money goes back from whence it came. So again, I told them getting this license would be a blessing and a burden in equal measure. If I make this work, I would have opened a door of opportunity for my generation. If I fail to make it work, I would have gone some way in shattering their hopes and dreams. I thought to myself, I must perform to give those that come after a chance. In the end, it worked. I got the license. That was the first step, and the easiest.

Finding the right partner

DL: What was the hardest?

ISK: When you obtain a license like this, people come calling. It was not long before they started making contact, including the previous license holders. I quickly realized most of them had one thing in mind; to make a quick buck. They want to put in some money, get a quick return, then ultimately buy you out, which is completely out of sync with my vision and objective. Finding the right partner was important for me, and I was determined to achieve my objective. In the months following the acquisition of the License, I talked to different groups, shared my vision and views and showed them around, but in the end I found most of their proposals unsuitable.

The two that came close to meeting my requirements were too skeptical about the potential of the license. One of them even asked, “If all you are saying about this concession is true, why aren’t the big guys going for it?” I felt an obligation to get the project going, but was unwilling to compromise and partner with just anyone. At this point I decided to approach Jan [Joubert]. He asked me to give him a few days; he came back with a firm expression of interest from Trustco and made an offer that struck the right balance between the vision, funding, management skills and experience I felt were required to make it a success.

After several detailed discussions, three factors swung my decision in favor of his proposal; the first and most important factor was him. I spent several years working for and with Jan, and he mentored me. I trust him implicitly and am confident in his ability to deliver. The second factor was the alignment of Trustco’s and my vision and strategic objectives, and their long-term perspective. Lastly, their commitment to execute an extremely ambitious development program, which was exactly what I was looking for in a partner. In the end, we reached an agreement.

Winning the trust of the community

DL: You mentioned a history in the region and lessons learned as being key components in the success of this young endeavor. Could you explain a bit more about this?

ISK: The community has a trust issue because of the past. They have a lot of bottled up frustrations, and when you meet them it comes out. My experience is their experience. Mining companies come and go and they are no better off than before. That anger is there. But because I understand where they are coming from, I also understand some of their pains and frustrations. I do not promise them pies in the sky. I tell them we are doing something here, and my one promise is that whatever comes out of this, they are going to benefit. We are in this together. When problems arise, they will know exactly what they are and we will do our best to address them.

You want and need to establish a relationship based on trust, on being genuine. The good part about this team is they are part of the community. They have been there forever. There is a desire to do the right thing, something real, something tangible. It’s beneficiation for all the stakeholders so they are happy. The management team has been in the country since 1995. The community and the government would not have given us the support if they doubted our intentions.

Doing the right thing

DL: If one looks at the history of diamonds in the region, one could reasonably question whether intentions have been good.

Jan Joubert: I don’t mind addressing this. Sierra Leone went through a very difficult time during the war, and that’s an understatement. Later we had the Ebola crisis, then mudslides; the challenges are never-ending. The real challenge for a mining team, however, is managing the expectations of the local community. And, considering the history of diamonds in Sierra Leone, this causes tremendous stress for a company like ours.

The management team has always tried to do the right thing for the community, the government, the shareholders and employees. In doing so, we have gained their confidence and support. 95% of our employees are locals. We intend to be here for the long run. We did not name the 476-carat diamond “Prosperity” because we think a single big stone is going to change people’s lives. We named it as we did to serve as a symbol of what we expect will come: sustainable development as the road to prosperity.

I don’t mind telling you about our experience at Koidu either. Until 2007, we simply focused on making Koidu work. It was an extremely difficult place to be after the war, in 2003-2004, and the eyes of the world were focused on it. We just put our heads down and built a mine, but in doing so we lost perspective of the entire economic landscape and the trauma the country was emerging from. An election was held and changes were made at the top. Then there was an incident at the mine in December 2007. Lives were lost. There are differing opinions as to what motivated it, but in any event, it was very public.

We closed down for nine months. However, over the course of those nine months, we got to know the authorities intimately because they went into every last detail of our business. When we came out on the other side, there was mutual respect. That bad period was as bad as it can get. But if you do the right thing and it is documented, the right thing pays off.

The level of integrity and respect one shows to government and the people determines one’s future. You have to understand what is going on in the country because you are part of that community. If you respect the community, keep them informed and manage expectations, then they support you. If your operation is run properly and community development is real – with actual houses, schools, clinics, reservoirs – then no one will argue. It comes down to getting the fundamentals in place from the outset. If you try to exclude the community from the process, that is when you run into problems. Fortunately, Ibrahim [Kamara] was our most senior Sierra Leonean at Octea. He was able to take all his experience, his good standing with government and in the community, and apply it to our new venture.

Ibrahim Kamara: We also have a local company developing the social and socio-economic programs as well as the environmental impact study. We need to get this right because we need a success story to attract foreign investment to Sierra Leone. The economy is not doing very well, and has had its fair share of people coming in and taking what they can get. But it is open to, and needs investors that want to do the right thing. We in Sierra Leone have seen our fair share of troubles. But the spirt of Sierra Leone is very strong. We are not easily broken. We always bounce back.