Introduction: Gold and Beyond
Bigger West Africa
After a disruptive 2020 that sent gold prices through the roof, West Africa, the world’s second-largest gold producing region after China, is getting bigger, growing beyond the Ghana-Mali-Burkina Faso geographies, but also beyond gold. With more minerals gathering attention, more countries in the region seen as prospective jurisdictions, and more relevance ascribed to the highly endowed region in a gold-depleting world, can West Africa meet its own expansive potential?
Swiftly recovering from an output decline in 2020, gold volumes look good for 2021, production growing at 2.7% for the region, according to Global Data. By 2024, total output by the region’s top-producing trio - Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali – is expected to increase from 8 million oz in 2021 to 8.4 million oz for 2022. Both old and new mines support this upward projection: Ghana’s oldest mine, the Obuasi underground mine operated by AngloGold Ashanti (JSE: ANG), has restarted operations following a redevelopment plan. Another Ghanaian-operating giant, Newmont (NYSE: NEM) announced an investment of up to US$850 million to advance the Ahafo North project, located about 30 km away from the Ahafo South mine. Ahafo North will add 3 million oz of gold over the mine’s 13 years’ LOM. Further away in Mauritania, Kinross (NYSE: KGC) is investing US$300 to expand the Tasiast 24K project.
At a gold price above US$1,700/oz, mines under development have a healthy glow. The region has a good track record of bringing greenfield projects onstream in recent years. Wahgnion started in 2019, and West African Resources (ASX: WAF)’ Sanbrado in 2020. At the start of 2021, Australian-listed Perseus Mining (ASX: PRU) brought its third mine into production, the Yaouré gold mine in Ivory Coast, producing at 260,000 oz/year for an initial LOM of 8 years. Other mines are due to pour first gold in the next 1-5 years: IAMGOLD (NYSE: IAG) is steadily advancing its Boto project in Senegal, while Fortuna Silver Mines (TSX: FVI) gave the green light to commence the construction of Séguéla in Ivory Coast. On the junior side, companies like African Gold Group (TSXV: AGG), Tietto Minerals (ASX: TIE), Roscan Gold (TSXV: ROS), Mako Gold (ASX: MKG) and Cora Gold (LON: CORA) are fiercely moving forward, having already published or due to present investors with the DFSs for their flagship projects.
“At the moment, I’d say the appetite for minerals associated with energy transition is much more positive compared to the appetite for gold, and certainly the trend has been to move away from gold towards more copper, nickel and zinc.”
James Wallbank, Managing Partner, Ibaera Capital
The centuries’ long history of gold production in Ghana, coupled with the impressive discoveries-turned-successful mines in Burkina Faso and Mali in the last decade have put other countries in the region on the gold map, explorers drawing geological parallels along the Birimian belt. Today, West African gold prospects stretch north-to-south from Mauritania to Equatorial Guinea, crossing new mining jurisdictions like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, or Cameroon.
But West Africa has more than gold. Guinea is already known as the world’s second-largest bauxite producer, and Niger has also made a name as the fifth biggest uranium producer. The region also holds other untapped energy and base metals which have an opportunity to come to the surface.
Beyond gold: future-facing metals
2020 seems to have been watershed years for commodity markets: Gold played out to its reputation as the most trusted store of value, investors narrowing in on bullion and gold stocks at the height of the crisis. By contrast, economic pessimism put a damper on metals associated with car sales and industrialization.
Yet, come 2021 and an imperfect reversal happened: gold is seeing a slide-back whereas industrial metals are making a strong return. Gold demand was 7% y-o-y lower in Q3 2021, mostly on account of higher ETFs outflows, according to the World Gold Council. At the same time, demand for metals associated with the energy-transition lead some analysts to speak about a new commodities super-cycle. This would be the fourth super-cycle in the last 100 years, and the first green one, revolving not around oil, but industrial and energy metals.
The narrative of climate change crisis is certainly not new, but it resonated stronger as the world experienced a different crisis, caused by the pandemic; the recovery from both crises is prescribed with green policies, green funds, and greener behaviors. Record sales of EV cars, matched by stricter policy proposals to ban new diesel cars in the next decades, but also the urgency of energy transition pushing nuclear power deeper on the table of energy solutions, all mark a radical shift to sustainability whereby metals like lithium, uranium, cobalt and aluminum become essential. These ‘future-facing metals,’ to borrow James Wallbank’s name for the collective bunch, are found across West Africa. Ghana and Mali’s lithium, Niger and Mauritania’s uranium, or Ghana and Guinea’s bauxite gain significant relevance in the decarbonization super-cycle.
“The global push for a clean environment, contingent on the successful realization of the EV revolution and stored energy revolution, suggests that lithium demand is here to stay for the foreseeable future.”
Vincent Mascolo, CEO and Managing Director, IronRidge Resources
Lithium and other energy metals
In a set-up of economic turmoil and meager consumption predictions, the EV market delivered a punchline in 2021, revealing record sales. More than 10 million electric cars are on the roads today, worldwide. Although lithium demand and supply are in relative balance, the IEA expects demand to grow 40-fold in the next 20 years. If all of the 200 battery mega-factories currently in development work at full capacity in 2030, they would require 3 million tonnes of lithium a year – or 37 times more than what was produced in 2020, estimate Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
In gold-dominated West Africa, lithium assets used to fall to second order, but this has changed. Lithium projects have received sure financial endorsements from both private investors and equity markets: ASX-listed Firefinch (ASX: FFX) entered an agreement with Chinese producer Ganfeng Lithium (SHE: 002460), who will buy 50% of the Goulamina lithium mine’s first phase output for US$130 million, enough to bring the project into production by 2023. Also in Mali, UK-based explorer Kodal Minerals (LON: KOD) is well funded to bring forward the Bougouni hard-rock open pit lithium mine, with a production of 220,000 tons at 6% spodumene concentrate with 71% recoverable lithium for a LOM of 8.5 years, as indicated in the Feasibility Study (FS). The project was granted a Mining License in November 2021.
In Ghana, after securing a financing agreement with Piedmont Lithium (ASX: PLL), IronRidge Resources (LON: IRR)’ Ewoyaa project is set to become the country’s first lithium mine fully funded to production. The Scoping Study published in 2021 supported the production of 2 million mt/y for the 14.5 million tonnes at 1.31% Li2O inferred and indicated resources. CEO Vincent Mascolo commented: “Our landmark deal will certainly be a significant catalyst for further lithium exploration in the region.”
The successful discoveries and developments of lithium projects, culminating in the construction of the first lithium mine, set a positive precedent for non-precious metals in the area that has been mostly searched for gold. Explorers looking for gold pay more attention to other minerals. It was a surprise for Awale Resources (TSXV: ARIC), a junior focused on greenfield gold exploration, to discover hematite alterations within an IOCG mineralization style, a type of high-grade gold coming together with copper anomalism, at its Odienné property in Ivory Coast, but the junior considers the discovery with seriousness: “This is unique in the country and it gives us a second focus within Odienné. We are taking a step back to look at the data with a copper mind,” said Glen Parsons, CEO of Awalé Resources.
“The zinc market witnessed an oversupply of concentrate before the pandemic hit, which was later consumed by the smelters in China during the outbreak. At the moment, there is a supply deficit as expansion projects got delayed and no new mines were built. We expect this supply constraint to last several years.”
Ricus Grimbeek, President and CEO, Trevali
Awale plans to drill along the 5 km copper anomaly strike to better understand the curious geology.
Awalé’s discovery was a fortunate coincidence, but Simon Meadows Smith, the CEO of Ghana-headquartered SEMS Exploration Services, reports that many of its clients show interest in other metals, especially lithium: “Lithium is certainly a commodity that many juniors are considering regardless of their core business,” he said.
At the same time, developers with assets in both gold and lithium also understand that the two commodities command two different investment classes, and prefer to keep them separate. This is why Firefinch preferred to demerge the Goulamina asset into Leo Lithium, a new company to start trading on the ASX in 2022: “A company like us often struggles to get wholesome valuations for its different assets if these are in different spaces. By demerging, we give each asset its own identity and lease of life, so that stakeholders end up with two pieces of paper and can decide if they want to invest in one, both, or neither,” said Michael Anderson, managing director at Firefinch.
“Nickel, in particular, is poised to see heightened demand. Without more discoveries, nickel risks being undersupplied, so it is paramount to spend time and money to find more nickel, especially nickel sulfides.”
Marc-Antoine Audet, CEO, Sama Resources
For over a decade the uranium market has been waiting for a return to favor after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the downward spiraling prices since. The instantaneous nature of such a disaster has had a much more powerful effect on public perception than the discourse of climate disasters, which unravel at a slower pace. But at COP26, nuclear advocates bring compelling, reality-checking arguments: Renewable sources alone cannot sustain a meaningful energy transition, nor sustain a stable energy supply. “There is no quick fix,” said Daniel Major, the CEO of uranium developer GoviEx Uranium (TSXV: GXU). With gas supply shortages in the UK, sudden interruptions in wind-powered electricity, but also the detrimental negative impact of hydropower solutions, are mounting to a wider acceptance that nuclear power remains a solid contender for clean and reliable energy supply, especially in a context of rising demand: According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, global energy demand will increase by at least 50% in the next 25 years.
“While wind and solar will deliver part of the world’s electricity production, we need a solid baseload, constant under all climatic conditions. More countries are including nuclear among green energy sources, accepting that solar and wind power cannot provide all the energy needed on the planet, particularly as the population and the level of urbanization grows, and conveniences like air conditioning are becoming more commonplace,” said Stephen G. Roman, president and CEO, Global Atomic (TSX: GLO).
With more than 90% of bauxite going through the bauxite-alumina-aluminum conversion, bauxite demand is determined by aluminum demand from the construction, automotive and electronic industries. The lightweight metal is associated with the infrastructure needed for renewable technologies, including carbon capture, EVs and solar power. After a bad 2020, aluminum is recovering, expecting a 3.3% CAGR growth between 2020-2027. Both supply and demand are tied to a single epicenter, China. As both the largest producer and consumer of aluminum, China is facing a big challenge because its supply is stressed by the need to curb CO2 emissions, while demand augments. Amid these parallel pressures coming from China, the price of aluminum rallied to a 10-year high of US$2,726.5/to on the London Metals Exchange in August 2021. The need for bauxite-for-aluminum imports is unprecedented.
Image courtesy of Orica