If there is a single South African company whose name is inextricably linked with the renaissance of African mining seen over the past 25 (or so) years, it is surely SENET. Founded 28 years ago, the Johannesburg-based engineering company and project house has designed and constructed processing facilities at mines all over Africa, along the way developing a global reputation in fields such as heap leaching and hydrometallurgy. Modern Mining’s Arthur Tassell recently spoke to Darren Naylor, SENET’s New Business Development Director, and Mpho Nkgodi, General Manager Business Development, to learn more about SENET’s history, strategy and current activities.
The company, which now has around 300 permanent employees, was established in 1989 by Jim Hollywood and Neil Senior, with the early focus being on materials handling. A range of proprietary heap leach stacking and agglomeration equipment was developed in the early 1990s and soon gained a high reputation both in Africa and globally. On the back of this success, SENET quickly evolved from being not just an equipment supplier but also the contractor for entire heap leach plants.
SENET’s first major installation was a 1,2 Mt/a plant at Cluff’s Ayanfuri gold mine in Ghana in 1994, which ranked as the first heap leach facility to be provided by any South African company, and it was followed by other installations at several other gold mines in West Africa, including Iduapriem and Teberebie in Ghana, Yatela in Mali and Siguiri in Guinea.
The Siguiri project, as it happened, led to SENET transitioning from being a heap leach specialist to a provider of entire processing plants based on other gold recovery technologies. “Our involvement at Siguiri, an AngloGold Ashanti mine, extended through several phases of development,” says Naylor. “In the final phase, which was implemented between 2003 and 2005, we were appointed as EPCM contractor for a 10,3 Mt/a CIP plant. We were able to design and fabricate this, ship it to site, erect and commission within a 16-month period, a considerable achievement given that it was at that stage probably the biggest plant of its type in Africa. The successful conclusion of the contract was the dawn of a new era for the company.”
Since the Siguiri project, SENET has designed and constructed many CIP/CIL gold plants, mostly in West Africa, with the latest being the 1,24 Mt/a facility at Hummingbird’s Yanfolila gold project in Mali, which (as this article was being written) was on the verge of first production. SENET was also responsible for the process plant and associated infrastructure in the Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS) on the project.
SENET’s expertise, of course, extends well beyond gold and it has undertaken work on a host of other metals and minerals over the years, including copper, cobalt, uranium, coal, potash and iron ore. Says Nkgodi: “We have the expertise to undertake materials handling and processing for just about any commodity. Our skillset encompasses every stage of comminution and processing from the point where the ore hits the ROM pad through to the finished product. We can take projects from the desktop or scoping study stage right through to feasibility study stage and then even further into design, engineering, procurement, execution and commissioning.
“In cases, where we manage entire feasibility studies, and in instances where we may not have the requisite in-house skills, we will bring in the specialists as necessary – for example, social and environmental experts.”
He adds that a particular competency of SENET is its ability to undertake projects in remote parts of Africa. “Working in Africa is as much about logistics and local knowledge as it is about engineering proficiency. Our track record of working in remote areas is unmatched and, in some cases, we have been pioneers. To take one instance, we were responsible for building the first-ever minerals processing plant in Eritrea. This was a complete 2 Mt/a CIL gold plant for the Bisha mine and we later completed a second phase of development, delivering a 2,4 Mt/a flotation plant to allow the mine to treat supergene ore.”
Although SENET is not a construction company, the fact that it executes projects in areas where there is a dearth of engineering and contracting skills means that it sometimes has to ‘self-construct’. As Naylor points out, “Particularly in its early days, SENET had no choice but to go this route but it’s not our preference. If there are good local contractors available, which is increasingly the case in Africa, then we will use them.
“Sites where SENET has had to rely on its own in-house construction skills have included Bisha and the Twangiza gold mine, built in the DRC’s South Kivu Province for Banro between 2009 and 2011,” he continues. “I was Project Manager on Twangiza and can attest to the fact that it was practically inaccessible and we had to rely largely on our own resources to build the plant.”
An interesting feature of SENET is that a very high proportion of the contracts it wins represent ‘repeat orders’. A particular example of this is the close relationship it has forged with one of the world-leading mining and commodity groups – now regarded as an anchor client – and its various subsidiaries in the DRC and Zambia.
“We were approached by the group in 2008 to undertake its greenfield copper development in the DRC, which was our first solvent extraction/electro-winning (SX/EW) plant, and we were subsequently awarded several additional contracts as the project expanded,” says Naylor. “We’ve also worked on various of their other assets and we are currently busy, at their Kolwezi complex in the DRC, with the Whole Ore Leach project, which we will soon be commissioning.”
In all, SENET has completed 18 copper/cobalt projects, most of them in the DRC. “We’re now as well known in copper and cobalt as we are in gold and we have one of the best hydrometallurgical teams in the world,” says Naylor. “Certainly in the Central African Copperbelt, we stand head and shoulders above our peers. No one else has our track record.”
Unlike many of its competitors, SENET remains focused on Africa. “Most of the EPCM ‘houses’ that started in South Africa have made a conscious effort to expand internationally,” Naylor observes. “By contrast, we still see ourselves as African specialists. We are quite comfortable working outside of Africa – and indeed have completed projects in the Middle East, Central Asia and Central and South America – but we don’t have a specific drive to target global markets.”
He adds that SENET has also retained its independence. “Quite a few of our South African competitors have been taken over by large international groups whereas we remain a privately owned South African company.”
Although the original founders of SENET, Jim Hollywood and Neil Senior, still serve on the company’s board (as respectively Chairman and Vice Chairman), the company’s MD (since 2013) is Hugo Swart, a mechanical engineer who joined SENET in 2003. Senior executives on the technical side of the business reporting to Swart include Marius von Wielligh (Engineering Director), Pieter Theron (Projects Director) and Philemon Bundo (Process Director).
A new initiative by SENET is SENOPS, a company established to undertake plant operation and maintenance on a contract basis. The venture is very new and, although it is conducting some operational readiness work in the DRC, at this stage has not secured any plant operations contracts. It is managed by Paul Thomson, a very well-known figure in mining circles who has vast experience in outsourced plant operations, having at one time served as MD of South Africa’s biggest player in this field.
In another diversification, SENET is talking to many of its clients about renewable energy. “We think there is a big market for solar PV installations in the African mining space, to supplement and offset the cost of either grid or genset power,” Naylor explains. “We are looking at systems offering up to around 5 MW in capacity. Leading this initiative is our Engineering Director, Marius von Wielligh, who worked as the MD of a company that was very active in the renewable energy field. We have some promising prospects and are very optimistic that we will land our first orders shortly.”
On the subject of materials handling, Naylor emphasises that this remains a core skill of SENET and says the company is currently putting a fresh focus on this part of its business. “We have executed some of the biggest materials handling projects in Africa, supplying conveyors of up to 10 000 t/h capacity and belt feeders able to withdraw from 100 000 tonne mass flow silos, to give just a couple of examples. Our objective is to remain a leader in the materials handling field and, among other things, we are currently rejuvenating our entire equipment range.”
Looking at the prospects for SENET, Naylor is very positive. “We have weathered the recession very well – without the need to retrench any staff – and our current order book looks healthy,” he says. “We have some big contracts coming to an end, such as Yanfolila, and it is, of course, a challenge to replace relatively large projects of this type given current market conditions. But we see opportunities all over Africa. For example, we have work lined up in Zambia and the DRC, we’re engaging with an iron ore client in Sierra Leone and gold clients in Guinea, Senegal and Ethiopia, and we also see opportunities in the potash field. We’re confident that SENET will continue to prosper and lead in African mining, as it has done for nearly three decades now.”
Photos courtesy of SENET (unless otherwise acknowledged).