Mittal wrapping up Africa? As the pace of Asian investment in African raw materials begins to pick up, India's Arcelor Mittal, the world's largest steel producer, has announced new investment in West African iron ore mining. What are the implications for Africa? Report by Neil Ford.
Investment in Liberia was already expected but has now been increased and the mining conglomerate has signed a deal to develop the El Agareb iron ore deposit in Mauritania.
In February 2007, Arcelor Mittal announced a $2.2bn investment in Senegalese iron ore and company representatives indicated that they hoped to develop a mining hub in West Africa.
International steel prices are high and show no signs of declining, while mining companies seem confident that demand for iron ore will remain strong in the long term.
Consumption in emerging Asian economies, such as India and China, has partly driven the boom but other developing and industrialised regions are also boosting demand.
The Indian company hopes to source a greater proportion of its global iron ore supplies from its own mines. At present, it is forced to rely on mining giants BHP Billiton, Rio Tin to and Vale to supply much of the iron ore that it uses in steel production.
However, it hopes to control about two-thirds of the ore it requires by 2010 as the result of investment in Africa, Latin America, Russia and elsewhere.
In January, Arcelor Mittal, which is now the world's biggest steel producer, revealed that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Mauritania's Societe Nationale Industrielle et Miniere (SNIM) to jointly develop El Agareb.
Arcelor Mittal's chief financial officer, Aditya Mittal, commented: "Mauritania's strategic location in West Africa makes it an ideal choice for iron ore supplies to Arcelor Mittal's European steel mills. This large iron ore project would further strengthen our existing presence in the region and will create substantial employment opportunities for the people of Mauritania while accelerating growth in the Mauritanian economy." The company did not reveal the financial terms of the deal but indicated that a feasibility study will be required before the final investment decision can be taken. It also revealed that it would take an initial stake of 30% in the venture, with the option to increase this to 70% at a later stage.
Production at El Agareb is expected to reach 25m tons a year, which would effectively double SNIM's total production and provide a real boost to the Mauritanian economy.
The deposit, which is believed to contain in excess of 1bn tons of magnetite, has long been used by SNIM to supply Mittal, so the new investment is based on an established relationship. Perhaps Arcelor Mittal's best known area of interest in Africa is Liberia. The deal, which gave the company a virtual monopoly over Liberian iron ore, attracted widespread criticism from non-governmental organisations, such as Global Witness.
They claim Mittal will gain unacceptable freedom over working practices, be in a position to influence the Liberian government and provide the company with an ability to opt out of key environmental legislation.
However, the new Liberian government welcomes the firm's involvement and believes that the jobs created and infrastructure developed will form a major part of national economic reconstruction.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Lakshmi Mittal held a joint press conference to announce that the company had decided to increase its investment from $lbn to $1.5bn.
Mittal commented: "There is a positive feeling about Liberia out there. We have to ensure that this project is successful because it will be a model for the future."
The government hopes that 20,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created by the venture. While on a tour of Arcelor Mittal's operations in Grand Bassa County at the end of January, Johnson-Sirleaf was informed that the company expects to ship its first iron ore as soon as April 2009.
Rail and port upgrades
A $21m contract for engineering and project management on the project has already been awarded to Brazilian firm Odebrecht, while exports are expected to reach 15m tons a year by 2011.
Apart from developing the Yekepa mines, the scheme requires the redevelopment of the port of Buchanan and also the 270km railway that runs from Yekepa to Buchanan; while providing additional power generating capacity and road rehabilitation.
The railway upgrade alone will cost $300m, but it remains to be seen whether the government or donors will provide some of the funding. As with the port of Monrovia, Buchanan requires rehabilitation after the country's long civil war. Some harbour basin redevelopment is expected, while new cargo handling equipment will also be required.
Exporting unprocessed mineral resources will not produce a healthy, balanced Liberian economy. Indeed, many could argue that the Mittal deal merely places the Mano River state in the same position as most other African countries in relying heavily on the sale of a handful of raw commodities.
Yet this is at least a better position than the one Liberia, with its economy in tatters, found itself in a few years ago. The iron ore deal is also helping to fund vital infrastructural rehabilitation work and will provide the government with much needed financial resources to fund other parts of its budget. In addition, as long as other elements of the economy emerge over the next few years, iron ore exports can certainly form part of a more balanced economy.
The IMF has announced that it has agreed a three-year $920m loan programme with Monrovia. The IMF mission chief to Liberia, Robert Powell, commented: "This in principle agreement, which is subject to the approval of IMF management and executive board, is a key step towards clearing Liberia's arrears to the IMF and the commencement of debt relief. Effective implementation of this programme will be critical to achieving the government's economic goals, including continued strong and sustained growth and obtaining comprehensive debt relief on the full stock of outstanding debt."
Most of the IMF money will be used to fund the standard economic reform package of poverty reduction, job creation and economic reconstruction.
The national debt currently stands at $4.5bn but Johnson-Sirleaf's experience of working in senior positions within multilaterals should ensure that the country moves through the heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) process as quickly as possible.
Economic growth is expected to reach 9.6% this year, while inflation should decline, so real headway is already being made, but it is vital that further foreign investment is secured if the high level of growth is to be sustained.
RELATED ARTICLE: Kenya
Insecurity threatens Tiomin investment
Plans by Canadian company Tiomin to invest in the Kenyan titanium sector could be at risk because of the serious political and security instability in the East African country. Following Jinchuan Group of China's decision to buy a 20% stake in Tiomin, the company has pressed ahead with its Kenyan ambitions. It hopes to produce 330,000 tons of ilmenite, 75,000 tons of rutile and 40,000 tons of zircon a year from the Kwale reserves in Coast Province for at least the first six years of the mine's 11-year estimated life.
Jinchuan's investment has been welcomed by Tiomin. Chief executive Jean-Charles Potvin commented: "This financing begins what we hope is an accelerated development programme with potential cost savings by maximising Chinese content. Jinchuan is a world class mining company with extensive project development experience and it is an ideal partner for Tiomin and Kenya."
However, Tiomin project coordinator, Joyce Misoi, says that the company is concerned about both financing and the uncertain state of the Kenyan government She commented: "We want to resolve the issues in Kenya permanently, which may include developing the Kwale project ourselves."
Misoi highlighted the extent of Tiomin's fears over the violence in Kenya by comparing it with the firm's other main interest, Peru, which itself has suffered from violent conflict in the past. She said: "Peru is a mining friendly country and the challenges there are of a more normal technical nature."
Even in December, during a visit to Mombasa and before violence erupted in Kenya, Tiomin's titanium project manager Nic Lionnet appeared to have concerns about cooperation from the Kenyan government.
He said: "Kwale remains an interesting project but we are waiting for the government of Kenya to complete the tasks required by international lenders so that we can reorganise a new project financing syndicate. Tiomin will not lift the state of force majeure at Kwale until this occurs."
Tiomin has already reduced its budget for Kenyan operations and may do so again, so there appears to be a real risk that Kwale may not be developed. This could also hit the port of Mombasa, which had expected to handle all mineral exports. The port has already secured massive Japanese funding to develop a second container terminal and had hoped to invest in new bulk handling capacity in order to serve Tiomin.