A cut above: Debswana Diamonds and the diamond industry of Botswana

A cut above: Debswana Diamonds and the diamond industry of Botswana

"For our people, every diamond purchase represents food on the table; better living conditions; better healthcare; potable and safe drinking water; more roads to connect our remote communities; and much more."

Those were the words of Festus Mogae, Former President of Botswana, speaking in 2006. The diamond industry in Botswana is flourishing, with the industry accounting for a large portion of the country’s revenue.

Debswana Mining Company is a key player on that front. As the largest private sector employer in Botswana, with over 5,000 permanent employees and at least 5,000 contractors; with four major diamond processing plants across Orapa, Letlhakane, and Damtshaa Mines (OLDM) and Jwaneng Mine, Debswana has been a major contributor to the economic growth of the country since its inception in 1967.

While the history of the company runs deep within the history of Botswana, the company now faces the future, with major plant expansions and technological innovation next on the agenda to continue to lead the way in diamond processing.

“Some of our assets are old, some over 45 years, so right now Debswana is looking at what our future strategy will be with regards to future expansions and building new plants,” says Edwin Elias, Head of Ore Processing.

“It’s about thinking what the approach will be in our quest towards being global benchmark diamond processing business unit, the methodology, the technology acquisition and development we have to deploy. Our plants of the future will be very different from our existing plants that were built some 45 years ago,”

Strategic development

As a metallurgist by profession, Elias has been with Debswana and De beers Group of Companies for at least 15 years. Through development programmes, both technical and managerial, Elias has been able to move up through the organisation to a more senior executive level. It is this development that places him in good stead when it comes to strategic development of the company.

In his role as Head of Ore processing, Elias has to ensure that he can provide the overall strategic direction and technical leadership for the process engineering discipline across all Debswana operations, one that should align with the overall direction of the shareholders, De Beers’s group of companies and the Government of Botswana.

“One of the things I have to ensure that I provide is the overall technical guidance and assurance to the business, so we can be assured that plants are being operated in an effective and efficient manner,” he says.

“But I must take notice of the high level strategic view of the bigger group, what is De Beers looking for;  what is Debswana looking for; so that at the end of the day whatever initiatives we come up with, will be in alignment with the company’s high level strategic objectives and will be able to maximize shareholders value.”

In the modern technologically savvy world, innovation can play a key role in determining the success of a business, none more so than Debswana. With assets as old as 45 years, now is the time for integrating new technologies to continue to run the most efficient and cost effective diamond operation. But it is not a case of simply choosing a new technology and seeing what sticks, for Elias and Debswana it is a strategic process of envisioning solutions of today that will satisfy future requirements.

“We look at the challenges that we currently have, specifically technology and how technologies are evolving. There’s also the impacts an expansion may have on infrastructure and how we may need to replace that infrastructure,” he says.

Through this process, it presents an opportunity to embrace new technologies. Elias believes that when looking at the impacts on infrastructure, it’s an opportunity to no longer think of replacing it or modifying it in a “like for like” situation. Elias can consider technology solutions that could allow the plants to operate in a safer and more cost effective way.

Mitigating risk

With adopting any new technology there is an inescapable element of risk. This is true of any industry and Elias believes as much. Over the last 12 months, Debswana has conducted a pilot test for a crushing technology application, known as vertical spindle impact crusher (VSIC) that is more cost effective, easy to maintain and operate.

For Debswana, this was unchartered waters.

“With any new technology, we either conduct a technical investigation or do a pilot test. Over a period of time we conduct analysis on the technology to assure ourselves that it will not damage the product, its cost effective and more importantly – it is safe to use and operate,” says Elias.

Only once this extensive pilot testing is complete will Debswana make a decision as to whether it will be integrated into the wider operations.

Elias is one of many people who have benefited from a strong development programme in place at Debswana and it doesn’t stop there. Debswana has a keen focus on localisation, supporting the local community and providing jobs and industry wherever it operates.

“We are close to 95 percent in terms of localised employees,” says Elias.

But this does not rule out the need for expats where necessary and Debswana takes into account that in any discipline where expats are needed, the company develops a localisation plan with the aim of transferring the technical skills to locals. This mandate expands further into local business – Debswana takes into account the amount of investment in both local and foreign based businesses, particularly with regards to supply chain.

“When it comes to local businesses, we are always looking for opportunities to promote partnerships with these local companies and we support, promote and advise them,” he says.

This falls under a wider Corporate Social Investment (CSI) strategy at Debswana. The strategy sees Debswana promise to engage with local communities and support those communities through anyway possible. 

“Debswana has a strategy and a plan so that in all operations and day to day business, we identify where and how we can support local communities. That could be building a new school, a community hall or even a new room at a local hospital. All of these plans are identified in our overall Corporate Social Investment (CSI) plan,” says Elias.

Safety in numbers

With the current focus on integrating new technologies and plant expansions, the health, safety and wellbeing of the company’s employees remains at the heart of everything Debswana does.

“One of our mandates as a company is that we strive to achieve zero harm and everything we do, we work hard to take into  consideration the safety of our employees,” says Elias.

Debswana’s Safety Risk Management Programme is designed to educate employees and contractors to identify hazards, assess and manage risks better. But for Elias, it doesn’t start and finish with the employees. Debswana has a proud safety leadership culture.

“We make sure we have good safety management programmes, but we also educate our leaders in order to provide the necessary safety leadership competencies required,” he says.

“One of the things we promote is a culture of visible felt-leadership (VFL), where leaders, myself, or employees can walk through the operations and mines and identify risks and potential hazards long before they can become a problem. We then create strategies and initiatives around that.”

The power in partnerships

As a Joint Venture (J.V) Debswana has established strong working partnerships that support and develop the growth of the business. The main partners within Ore Processing include De Beers Technologies (DebTech), which focuses on the research and development of technologies based on challenges and future improvements in the diamond operations.

 Debswana also works closely with ThyssenKrupp, Metso Minerals and IMS for its crushers, in which the companies provides maintenance, support and training in order to safely maintain and operate the crushers.

“The key thing from all of our partners has been the guidance and technical support in our operations that really allows us to gain true value in the overall product,” says Elias.

With over 45 years’ experience and operating hand in hand with the growth of the Botswana diamond industry, where next for Debswana? The company is currently piloting a large diamond recovery plant and following a successful pilot period, will look to integrate this plant into the wider business.

For Elias, wherever the future takes both him and Debswana, he will take great pride in the impact that the company has and will continue to have on the life’s of Botswana.

“What really excites me is the impact my role has in the company, which in turn impacts the nation overall,” he says.

“Every single day, one needs to think about what kind of technologies will be the best for our country, and how we can better develop the skills of our employees and those within the communities. This is something I believe we can achieve greatly within Debswana.”