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Orapa & Letlhakane mine: The highs and lows of the world’s largest diamond mine – Part One

ORAPA: If Las Vegas is famous for its glitterati lights and trendy casinos, the gambling and money spinning haven for a cross-section of the wealthy one percent, Miami, London and Paris the fashion and culture capitals of the modern world.

Hollywood the nurturing cradle of pop-culture that churns out the world’s glamorous, the best entertainers and super stars to wow and thrill our planet. New York, the concrete jungle where dreams are made, then Orapa is the world’s one of a kind reliable and highly trusted giver of rare, special, precious rocks, a gift to the word that keeps on giving.  


The Orapa diamond mine owned and operated by Debswana is the world's largest open cast diamond mine located in a small township in the Boteti Sub-District. Orapa has for many years decorated royals and Hollywood stars with jewelry from its priced and truly special diamonds, it is a magical oasis of precious stones in the sweltering warmth of the unforgiving Boteti heat.

At its best, Orapa is to the Botswana economy what Obama is to American politics, what Mandela is to South Africa, what the Buggatti is to the car industry. It is what Floyd Mayweather is to Boxing, but that was then. For close to fifty years, Orapa has endured its highs and lows, it has experienced its boom and bust, in that order and the tale as told by its very first inhabitants is an incredible one.   


After close to half a century of uninterrupted high value diamond production and critical support to Botswana's economic development, Orapa is not the same place it used to be. Its first employees and original residents now in the evening of their lives, men who dared to literally invade the sleeping place for lions, (The word Orapa is actually a Sesarwa word that means resting place for lions) sleeping in nothing but makeshift tents (Camp Lamando) when Orapa was just a thicket of bush, a feared forest where lions roamed and the human species, except for some highly experienced Basarwa animal trackers would not dare to step foot in, look back with nostalgia and reminisce about the good old times of the Orapa Beer-fest, the Christmas parties where drinks over-flowed non-stop, the days of Orapa owned Television Station, memories of mine sponsored shopping sprees and the mine bonus program mpho le mphonyana as well as the generosity of the then Minister of Minerals, a certain Minister Mswele, who now seems all forgotten.

They saw the township being built, brick by brick from the ground up, they witnessed too much during the life of the mine. They posses the greatest institutional memory, but yet have also forgotten a lot in the last forty five years which they now remember in bits and pieces before it is all lost to historical record.   


This week, two old men who were part of the tiny cohort of Orapa mine’s first employees sat down with this publication to jog their memories and attempt to remember all that was Orapa of yesteryears, Orapa of their time. Eighty year old Kgosiemang Diepo, born in 1935, says that he started work at Orapa mine in 1967 when the mine had just been discovered and the AK1 kimberlite just indentified. 

He describes that time as the ‘best of days’. Orapa, the oldest of four mines operated by Debswana, begun operations in July 1971, four years after he had begun work at the mine.

By then Diepo was only 35 years old, and had no idea he was going to embark on the task of building the world’s largest diamond mine, which will turn out to be the mainstay of Botswana’s economic success model for many decades.


Kgosiemang Diepo started work at the mine during it initial prospecting, first sampling and evaluation process in 1967 and was among those in attendance when it was officially launched and open for business in 1971 by His Excellency Sir Seretse Khama. 

He says he was part of the mine’s first geologists, led by Manfred Marx, and ably assisted by Dr Gavin Lamont and Norman Randel who carefully traversed the carnivores infested forest of Boteti in search of precious stones, then he had never laid eyes on the stone they sought. He says this adventures process, which later included sampling and evaluation of soils and rocks took them two years to complete. 

On June 23rd 1968, the De Beers Botswana Mining Company was born. He says he remembers that special moment then when the first diamonds were discovered and he first laid his eyes on the stones he had longed to see. 

The old man saw all that is Orapa today from conception to execution. Now retired and a headman of arbitration at Mokgobelele Ward in Letlhakane, know for his trademark safari hat, Diepo says he had no idea then he will stay at Orapa mine for more than 26 years, let alone live to tell the tale to the younger generation.


“I was among the first local inhabitants to work in the Orapa diamond mine, which was then not called Orapa or Debswana but De Beers Mining Company. I begun work on the 26th May 1967, when Orapa was still just a camp and we lived in temporary structures. The mine headquarters were in South Africa while the geology office was based in Lobatse” the old geezer says slowly.


He says many of the people he began work with at the mine are late and that his first responsibilities at Orapa were clearing bushes, creating space for internal roads, digging, prospecting and taking soils sample. He was a jack of all trades “we were basically preparing for the parrot plant building, back then we used very rudimentary equipments and everything was a process of discovery through trial and error.

I remember that we were initially paid R8 and then later R10” he says. He says heavy duty drivers who are now paid between P10, 000 and P20, 000 by the mine were only paid R15 “Our Chief geologist was a Scottish man called James George Gibson and our general manager who I remember been picked at the Francistown train station regularly lived in Johannesburg and would only visit to check on progress” he remembers vividly.


He says when the mine was handed over in 1971, it was a period of great joy and trepidation among his contemporaries, and the mine’s first employees “since that day, the mine has operated unabated and uninterrupted, its plant operates non-stop day and night” he says.

“Orapa then was like the biblical land of milk and honey, it was a hodgepodge of people from different nationalities, all focused and committed to the search of one thing, the world’s most valuable rocks. From there on we started having a mix of people from Germany, Canada, South Africa and Zimbabwe coming to this place” he says.

He says many of the new arrivals then brought their children and settled in Orapa. He says that even gold diggers from the south African gold mines, mining engineers, metallurgists, steel experts and the like started descending into Orapa in their droves “as the population of people increased, the mine decided to build the township as you see it today, a modern town, with modern brick houses, additional housing was added gradually over the years to convert the bush into a true modern mining city” he says.  

He says back then the mine took good care of its employees “ R10 was a lot of money in the 70’s, the mine could also afford to give its employees, housing allowance, free gas, free electricity, cars to go shopping in Francistown, all expenses paid as there were no shops in Letllhakane or Orapa” he says.


Gabaratane Maphane Mawala, born in 1934, says he was operator with the mine for 20 years. He says they used to be given mine cars to go wherever they wanted “back then to work in the mine gave you prestige in the village, the mine operated non-stop day and night, it never closed, we had 3 shifts, one from 8-4pm, followed by another from 4pm- 12 mid-night, then another group would go to work from 12 midnight until 8pm, the cycle would continue and that cycle has been like that to date. In our time we would be given seven days off work to rest regularly” he says.


While they speak well and glowingly about the mine, the two old timers don’t flinch when they bemoan the lack of developments in their village of Letlhakane. “we had high hopes that the mine would develop this village, looking back we regret that we should have demanded more developments for our region” Mawala says with a straight face.

He says that it is a shame that in 2015, Letlhakane has no street lights “with all the money that has come from the mine the village should have good internal roads and street lights” Letlhakane has no single street light and they both agree that might pose a danger to people who have to catch buses for their night shift.

“life has changed, these days stories of mine employees working night shifts being robbed or victims of crime are common, it is a big disappointment and unbelievable that the village is still as dark at night as it used to be back then in the 70’s, this is a great failure and a disservice on the part of the government and the mine” he continues, with visibly restlessness written on his face.

The two concur that unlike today, in the past it did not require a special permit to enter Orapa “people entered as they pleased. In our days, there was a lot of diamond theft. Many people stole diamonds back then and were as a result denied access into Orapa” Diepo adds.

It was then decided that permission will be restricted and a permit sought to enter the township. He says diamond theft was so rampant that the then chief of police, a certain Jack Monty was transferred to Orapa to assume the post of Chief Security Officer at the mine.

He says many such people were tried in the courts of law in Botswana and it is now impossible for them to enter Orapa, let alone for anyone with a criminal record, this he posist  is due to the mine’s high security culture. Orapa is entirely fenced, it has a high security fence, with only two manned entry points, even upon entry into the township, access is only allowed in the green area and not where the diamonds are mined.

“When I started working as Operator on December 20 1989, I thought what the mine did for the village was good enough for us, looking back I would say we have failed the young generation and should have demanded better and more developments’’ Mawala brings us back to the discussion on the villagers co-existence with the mine.


He says while his generation was satisfied with R35 which he earned when he became full operator, he wishes they had the vision to see 25 years into the future and asked the mine to cater for village developments as well, to build at least public toilets and street lights for the villagers “The mine has not developed Letlhakane, we are disappointed. Residents should stand up and demand better! Otherwise the mines will soon close, leaving the village as it was when it started operation” he declares.

Diepo adds that not even the main kgotla in Letlhakane which is the symbol and embodiment of the village’s culture, identity and development has a proper roof and is big enough.

“I must add though that when Blackie Marole was at the helm and leadership of the mine he tried his out most best, but was failed by the politics and ill advised by people who did not want to see this village prosper” he says.


He says people should visit Letlhakane to see that it is not any different from 45 years ago, save for a few structures which were not build by the mine but through the sweat and toil of local business men and Letlhakane residents, who saw opportunity in a mining environment. He says while they understand that Orapa is the administrative centre for all the mines in the region, the township has unfairly benefited, getting the bulk of all the developments at the compete exclusion of Letlhakane.


He says water and power never shuts down in Orapa no matter what happens in the rest of Botswana and it saddens them as senior citizens that Letlhakane is excluded when it also has a diamond mine “Letlhakane should be better, we live in a village with no proper sewage system, not many good gravel roads, majority of the mine workers stay here and we are surrounded by diamonds.

The dust is unbearable because we have no tarred roads! Tuberculosis is on the rise in the village. The big mine trucks, so big that we never knew trucks that big existed, have to drive on these terrible roads regularly, sending clouds of dust everywhere and causing more damage to our once peaceful and safe environment. It is time a small percentage of the profits is reserved to help the village build roads” he says hushly, as if to restrain himself.


He reveals that he remembers however that a few years ago the mine reluctantly built 55 toilets in tsikinyega ward and regularly donates cash through their corporate social investment (CSI) arm which will be one of its biggest legacy to the village, but so do many non-mining companies with CSI units he says “what would be wrong with the mine doing something more tangible to remember it by, like constructing internal roads, improving the gravel roads in Letlhakane and building a proper hospital, why should Letlhakane residents still be referred to Francistown hospitals after so many years of mine operation” he asks rhetorically.


While he acknowledge that the mines has built the one road that connects Letlhakane to Francistown, he says he will be proud of the mine if Letlhakane had a proper stadium, airstrip, good internal roads, large hospital, mine sponsored malls and street lights.

He says his consolation is that while the mine did not develop the places and regions the minerals are extracted from, it is comforting that it has helped develop the rest of the country “the mine has employed so many people over the years and changed lives positively, it has employed people from across Botswana without discrimination and that is what consoles me” he says as if in reflection.


He says while he would not like to talk too much about what might have been and dwell on the past, it still troubles him that whites who were junior and doing the same jobs as them were paid more “English people from England and some of those countries, who were doing hard labor and menial jobs, came here and were paid more than us.

That was unfair and it was never explained to us what that was about”. He remembers sadly.

He says having been involved with the mine for that long, he knows that there are still plenty of diamonds in Boteti and that more mines will spring up in the future “I do not wish to reveal too many details or cause alarm about this, but I can assure you that having been to many spaces where diamonds are found in Boteti, from the very beginning, I know there are still plenty of diamonds in this country, they will never finish” he says boldly. 

He says he however fully supports government’s strategy of not revealing too much information to citizens about diamonds as that might lead to many mines opening and a possible stock pile of diamonds or the country being attacked in a scramble and scurry for the precious rocks.

“When we begun work at the Orapa mine, we were told that it will have a life span of about 30 years, I retired after 26 years, and its life span keeps increasing. Don’t believe all this hype about the mine life span or shut down. We will die and in my knowledge there will still be digging for diamonds in Boteti. Orapa will get to cut 3, 4 and 5 and I will be proven right.

Having prospected for diamonds, evaluated then and seen some of the pits and the rocks they came from, that is my general view if you ask me about the future of diamonds in Botswana” He says with a relaxed confidence. 

He says while the mines may occasionally shutdown and experience their lows and bust, as it occurred in 2009 due to less demand for diamonds and the world economic meltdown, they will always be back up when the world economy changes and demand shifts.


Diepo, who says when he left the mine he had been Promoted many times, remembers being promoted to Geology Transport Supervisor and another promotion to senior Geology field officer, he says he is surprised that people in the same position today earn so much more. He says even white employees back then used to laugh behind his back saying he should have been paid more for the many roles he played building Orapa.

For his part, Maphane says, he was told his position was, operator, then shift foreman and later shift-foreman now dealing with blasting, to prove this he shows a scar on his leg, the injury came about during one of the blasting operations at the A/K1 kimberlite. To date, he is still seeking compensation for his injuries from the mine.


Today, the Boteti region boasts of four diamond mines, being Orapa, Letlhakane, Damtshaa (OLDM) and Karowe Boteti mines all within a 10 kilometers radios of each other. Firestone, Monak ventures, as well as other mines are said to be on the pipeline.

The Orapa diamond mine operates for 24 hours, seven days a week all year round, since 1971 and the early 2000, only halting shortly and intermittently for the plant to go for routine service and maintenance.

The average work day on the mine is eight hours. It employs hundreds of operators and miners trained on mining and earth moving machines, drilling, excavating and blasting, who burn the mid-night oil daily, in a meticulous search for life sustaining stones, all working on shifts day and night even as the nation sleeps or some employees go on strike.

The mine has its own independent water and power supplies to ensure uninterrupted around-the-clock operations ensuring that Orapa remains the one of a kind reliable supplier of rare stones, a highly trusted giver to the world that keeps on giving and it seems in the wisdom of Kgosiemang Diepo so will it be, now and in posterity.


Part two will cover the two men’s departure from Orapa mine and their journey to start work on another mine, the Letlhakane mine in 1975. Part three will cover the controversial scannex machines used in the diamond red area, where only a select few are allowed access. Part four the mine’s long term impact on the environment in Boteti. Part five will focus on Boteti Karowe Mine-a Model Mine and the Unknown story of Monak Ventures.

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Business

New study reveals why youth entrepreneurs are failing

21st July 2022
Youth

The recent study on youth entrepreneurship in Botswana has identified difficult access to funding, land, machinery, lack of entrepreneurial mindset and proper training as serious challenges that continue to hamper youth entrepreneurship development in this country.

The study conducted by Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) in collaboration with University of Botswana has confirmed that despite the government and private sector multi-billion pula entrepreneurship development initiatives, many young people in Botswana continue to fail to grow their businesses into sustainable and successful companies that can help reduce unemployment.

University of Botswana researchers Gaofetege Ganamotse and Rudolph Boy who compiled findings in the 2022 study report for Botswana stated that as part of the study interviews were conducted with successful youth entrepreneurs to understand their critical success factors.

According to the researchers other participants were community leaders, business mentors, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Youth, Gender, Sport and Culture, financial institutions, higher education institutions, non-governmental institutions, policymakers, private organizations, and support structures such as legal and technical experts and accountants who were interviewed to understand how they facilitate successful youth entrepreneurship.

The researchers said they found that although Botswana government is perceived as the most supportive to businesses when compared to other governments in sub-Saharan Africa, youth entrepreneurs still face challenges when accessing government funding. “Several finance-related challenges were identified by youth entrepreneurs. Some respondents lamented the lack of access to start-up finance, whereas others mentioned lack of access to infrastructure.”

The researchers stated that in Botswana entrepreneurship is not yet perceived as a field or career of choice by many youth “Participants in the study emphasized that the many youth are more of necessity entrepreneurs, seeing business venturing as a “fall back. Other facilitators mentioned that some youth do not display creativity, mind-blowing innovative solutions, and business management skills. Some youth entrepreneurs like to take shortcuts like selling sweets or muffins.”

According to the researchers, some of the youth do not display perseverance when they are faced with adversity in business. “Young people lack of an entrepreneurial mindset is a common challenge among youth in business. Some have a mindset focused on free services, handouts, and rapid gains. They want overnight success. As such, they give up easily when faced with challenges. On the other hand, some participants argue that they may opt for quick wins because they do not have access to any land, machinery, offices, and vehicles.”

The researchers stated that most youth involved in business ventures do not have the necessary training or skills to maintain a business. “Poor financial management has also been cited as one of the challenges for youth entrepreneurs, such as using profit for personal reasons rather than investing in the business. Also some are not being able to separate their livelihood from their businesses.

Lastly, youth entrepreneurs reported a lack of experience as one of the challenges. For example, the experience of running a business with projections, sticking to the projections, having an accounting system, maintaining a clean and clear billing system, and sound administration system.”

According to the researchers, the participants in the study emphasized that there is fragmentation within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, whereby there is replication of business activities without any differentiation. “There is no integration of the ecosystem players. As such, they end up with duplicate programs targeting the same objectives. The financial sector recommended that there is a need for an intermediary body that will bring all the ecosystem actors together and serve as a “one-stop shop” for entrepreneurs and build mentorship programs that accommodate the business lifecycle from inception to growth.”

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Business

BHC yearend financial results impressive

18th July 2022
BHC

Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC) is said to have recorded an operating surplus of P61 Million, an improvement compared to the previous year. The housing, office and other building needs giant met with stakeholders recently to share how the business has been.

The P61 million is a significant increase against the P6 million operating loss realized in the prior year. Profit before income tax also increased significantly from P2 million in the prior year to P72 million which resulted in an overall increase in surplus after tax from P1 million prior year to P64 million for the year under review.

Chief of Finance Officer, Diratsagae Kgamanyane disclosed; “This growth in surplus was driven mainly by rental revenue that increased by 15% from P209 million to P240 million and reduction in expenditure from P272 million to P214 million on the back of cost containment.”
He further stated that sales of high margin investment properties also contributed significantly to the growth in surplus as well as impairment reversals on receivables amounting to P25 million.

It is said that the Corporation recorded a total revenue of P702 million, an 8% decrease when compared to the P760 million recorded in the prior year. “Sales revenue which is one of the major revenue streams returned impressive margins, contributing to the overall growth in the gross margin,” added Kgamanyane.

He further stated professional fees revenue line declined significantly by 64% to P5 million from P14 million in the prior year which attributed to suspension of planned projects by their clients due to Covid-19 pandemic. “Facilities Management revenue decreased by P 24 million from P69 million recorded in prior year to P45 million due to reduction in projects,” Kgamanyane said.

The Corporation’s strength is on its investment properties portfolio that stood at P1.4 billion at the end of the reporting period. “The Corporation continues its strategy to diversify revenue streams despite both facilities management income and professional fees being challenged by the prevailing economic conditions that have seen its major clients curtailing spending,” added the CEO.

On the one hand, the Corporation’s Strategic Performance which intended to build 12 300 houses by 2023 has so far managed to build 4 830 houses under their SHHA funding scheme, 1 240 houses for commercial or external use which includes use by government and 1 970 houses to rent to individuals.

BHC Acting CEO Pascaline Sefawe noted that; BHC’s planned projects are said to include building 336 flat units in Gaborone Block 7 at approximately P224 million, 100 units in Maun at approximately P78 million, 13 units in Phakalane at approximately P26 million, 212 units in Kazungula at approximately P160 million, 96 units at approximately P42 million in Francistown and 84 units at approximately P61 million in Letlhakane. Emphasing; “People tend to accuse us of only building houses in Gaborone, so here we are, including other areas in our planned projects.”

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Business

Commercial banks to cash big on high interest rates on loans

18th July 2022
Commercial-banks

Researchers from some government owned regulatory institutions in the financial sector have projected that the banking sector’s profitability could increase, following Bank of Botswana Monetary Policy Committee recent decision to increase monetary policy rate.

In its bid to manage inflation, Bank of Botswana Monetary Policy Committee last month increased monetary policy rate by 0.50 percent from 1.65 percent to 2.15 percent, a development which resulted with commercial banking sector increasing interest rate in lending to household and companies. As a result of BoB adjustment of Monetary Policy Rate, from 1.65 percent to 2.15 percent commercial banks increased prime lending rate from 5.76 percent to 6.26 percent.

Researchers from Bank of Botswana, the Non-Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority, the Financial Intelligence Agency and the Botswana Stock Exchange indicated that due to prospects of high inflation during the second half of 2022, there is a possibility that the Monetary Policy Committee could further increase monetary policy rate in the next meeting in August 25 2022.

Inflation rose from 9.6 percent in April 2022 to 11.9 percent in May 2022, remaining above the Bank of Botswana medium-term objective range of 3 – 6 percent. According to the researchers inflation could increase further and remain high due to factors that include: the potential increase in international commodity prices beyond current forecasts, logistical constraints due to lags in production, the economic and price effects of the ongoing Russia- Ukraine conflict, uncertain COVID-19 profile, domestic risk factors relating to possible regular annual administered price adjustments, short-term unintended consequences of import restrictions resulting with shortages in supplies leading to price increases, as well as second-round effects of the recent increases in administered prices “Furthermore, the likelihood of further increases in domestic fuel prices in response to persistent high international oil prices could add upward pressure to inflation,” said the researchers.

The researchers indicated that Bank of Botswana could be forced to further increase monetary policy rate from the current 2.15 percent if inflation rises persistently. “Should inflation rise persistently this could necessitate an upward adjustment in the policy rate. It is against this background that the interest rate scenario assumes a 1.5 percentage points (moderate scenario) and 2.25 percentage points (severe scenario) upward adjustment in the policy rate,” said the researchers.

The researchers indicated that while any upward adjustment on BoB monetary policy rate and commercial banks prime lending rate result with increase in the cost of borrowing for household and compnies, it increase profitability for the banking sector. “Increases in the policy rate are associated with an overall increase in bank profitability, with resultant increases in the capital adequacy ratio of 0.1 percentage points and 0.2 percentage points for the moderate and severe scenarios, respectively,” said the researchers who added that upward adjustment in monetary policy rate would raise extra capital for the banking sector.

“The increase in profit generally reflects the banking industry’s positive interest rate gap, where interest earning assets exceed interest earning liabilities maturing in the next twelve months. Therefore, an increase of 1.5 percentage points in the policy rate would result in industry gains of P71.7 million (4.1 percent increase), while a 2.25 percentage points increase would lead to a gain of P173.9 million (6.1 percent increase), dominated by large banks,” said the researchers.

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