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‘Skills gap stifles diamond mining’

by Lesotho Times
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LETŠENG Diamonds Chairman Clifford Elphick

LETŠENG Diamonds Chairman Clifford Elphick

Bereng Mpaki

LETŠENG Diamonds Chairman, Clifford Elphick, has bemoaned the dearth of technical skills in the country, saying it was one of the major risks to the growth of the diamond mining sector.

Mr Elphick made the remark last Friday during the launch of the Letšeng Diamond Discovery Centre – a facility that provides information about the diamond mining industry in the country.

The Letšeng Diamond Discovery Centre is located on the ground floor of the firm’s head office building in Maseru, and takes visitors on a journey of discovery about the origins of diamonds, their extraction and uses. It is open to visitors during weekdays, and employs visual and model illustrations to paint a vivid picture of the diamond mining industry.

He said the skills shortage was curtailing the development of the sector.

“The key risk to a sustainable Letšeng and, a major hindrance to the growth of the diamond mining sector in Lesotho, is the lack of technical skills available in Lesotho to operate complex diamond mines properly,” said Mr Elphick, who is also the chief executive of Gem Diamonds -which owns 70 percent of Letšeng Mine with the rest owned by the government of Lesotho.

Too much attention, he said, was placed on politics instead of the development of the requisite technical skills to support diamond mining, despite the sector’s proven capacity to contribute to the country’s socio-economic development.

“In my opinion, a great deal of our time is wasted because of the emphasis which is placed exclusively on politics without any time being spent on assessing the economic impact of the delay in acquiring adequate skills for the continued success of the industry,” Mr Elphick said.

“Simply put, ensuring we have the correct technical skills to operate Letšeng is the government of Lesotho and Gem Diamond’s biggest risk and, therefore, top priority.”

He, however, noted efforts by the government to address the skills shortage in the country.

“I am very happy to report that recently there have been helpful movement in this regard, which will obviously deliver the results not only for Letšeng but for KAO Diamond Mine and the emerging Liqhobong Mine.

Mr Elphick said Letšeng was also facing the challenge of low carat recovery as they get deeper into the earth.

He said Letšeng was ranked number four in the world among the largest open pit diamond mines by tonnes moved, but was the smallest carat producer because of the “pitiful grade we have to deal with”.

“The scale and complexity of Letšeng is widely recognised for being the lowest grade ore body by far in the industry at 1 500 carats per 100 tonnes of kimberlite mined,” said Mr Elphick.

“To put that into context, we recover three grammes of diamonds for every 100 tonnes of kimberlite processed, but to get that 100 tonnes, we are moving a further 3 200 tonnes of basalt and that number is growing rapidly as we go deeper.”

Despite Letšeng’s apparent challenges, he said it remained one of the producers of the world’s finest quality diamonds.

“Letšeng is internationally-renowned for producing some of the finest quality gems in the world. Four of the 20 largest, white gem quality diamonds in the world were recovered from Letšeng.

“Letšeng is Lesotho’s, and one of the world’s most treasured crown jewels. While Karowe Mine in Botswana has now displaced Letšeng as the biggest producer of large diamonds, nevertheless, Letšeng remains important.” Mr Elphick said.

The mine’s contribution to the diamond industry, he said, had been increasing over the years.

“From a standing start to processing 2.3 million tonnes of ore and recovering about 50 000 carats per annum in 2004 to mining approximately 35 million tonnes and producing 108 000 carats per annum in 2015 is remarkable growth.”

Mr Elphick added that Letšeng’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product in 2015 was approximately nine percent, adding that the mine was the largest taxpayer and contributor of foreign earnings in the country.

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