Debswana Diamond Company was founded on a competitive edge of extracting diamonds. This national bread basket leads in ore processing, projects engineering and contract operations propelling the mining giant to the pinnacle of revenue generation and cost efficiency. Debswana boasts an impressive track record – of localised business strategy and expertise human development.
It is the abundant foresight of leadership committed to the company and its values that has seen the venture traverse 50 years, with promises of more ahead. To paraphrase President Mogae, the economy of Botswana rests on a bedrock of diamonds.
On July 20th, 2019, against the backdrop of a full moon, Debswana weathered the cold to celebrate 50 years, incognisant to the date also marking the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong announcing, “The Eagle has landed”. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy put a monumental goal before Congress – ‘to land man on the moon and return him safely to Earth’. It would take eight years to reach the moon. NASA, an agency of the United States government responsible for the space programme, ate $25 billion before achieving that goal. On July 20th 1969, astronaut Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon.
As the world witnessed Apollo 11 make a first and successful milestone of a historic crewed landing, far away in a desolate desert, a poor and little known Botswana began mining diamonds. De Beers geologists found elmenite and garnet, the signposts of diamond kimberlite in 1967. The largest of the ore was found in Orapa by geologists Dr Gavin Lamont, Manfred Marx and Gim Gibson. As the Americans marvel at their success in space, Botswana reflects on Debswana’s achievements; how it continues to influence mining, research and development; but most importantly how Debswana has sustained an economy. From that moment when geologists set foot on virgin soil, through the ever changing economics, Debswana’s guiding value has been to enrich the nation. Debswana accounts for just over 75% of the De Beers group output making it the world’s leaders in diamond production by value and second largest by volume. Diamond mining operations contribute 30% to GDP, 70% to foreign exchange earnings and 40% to government revenue. The commitment to customer satisfaction has seen the operations continually update and adjust mine plans to suit production sequencing, averting a drought of carats.
The mining giant runs its own enterprise, with guidance from the Board and crucially not interference. Employees are the most trusted agents breeding a culture of measured safety conscious performance and world class delivery. From mid-70’s the company embarked on a long term leadership development pipeline that identified talent from secondary schools and channelled industry specific training in universities across the globe. Selection during recruitment characteristically took the best candidates available.
A robust leadership developmental programme from graduation to full industry capable professionalism and extensive apprenticeship for mining specific trades such as rigging, fitting and boiler-making has seen Debswana emerge with the best fit for purpose combinations of employees. Skills transfer programmes also drove a localisation in domains that were predominantly the reserve of expatriates. Today, 98% of positions across the operations are held by citizens with emphasis on skills retention, knowledge management and continuity. Patriotic fervour is the fuel that drives an inculcated culture of good governance in execution. Employees have in their DNA unparalleled sense of responsibility to duty. The work ethic and governance culture propels a project management capability that has seen 99% of works including mega projects delivered on time, within budget and to the quality desired. Mareledi Fantan delivered Damtshaa Mine in 2002 where orchestration of projects follows tight timelines consistently. The cost of a failed project in Debswana is astronomical. A slump in distributable income to shareholders is the most undesired of outcomes.
Balisi Bonyongo’s tenure as MD characterised five years of consistently high distributions to shareholders despite strong headwinds in the global markets and the 2015 – 16 commodities slowdown. Bonyongo set up Debswana to be responsive, agile and more resilient to global market forces. The 2015 slowdown was as severe as the 2008 recession but the impact less felt owing to prudent leadership. Risk based strategy in projects includes a due diligence sphere of geological science, infrastructure and environmental considerations in partnerships with internationally recognised, competent and accredited project teams. Partnerships with Fluor, Bateman and Majwe Mining to name a few have overseen preparation for Cut 8 & 9 delivered with precision thanks to former General Manager and now MD Albert Milton.
Whilst it was Bonyongo who kicked off Cut 8, and set up the operations and company readiness, it was Milton who delivered. A mining engineer by profession, Milton ramped up production to its peak, recovered lost ground and delivered on time. Future schools and hospitals will be built on account of this leadership.
As the employer of choice, Debswana distinguishes itself in attractive benefits and conditions of service. Notable in the humanitarian approach to employee welfare, Debswana was the first company in 2001 to offer Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) to its employees and spouses living with HIV/AIDS.
Notwithstanding the great successes, there have been tumultuous times. Learnings from 2004 industrial strike saw the management and employee representative union form a Joint Negotiating Consultative Committee (JNCC). Cordial relations between management and union diminish any threat of industrial action. This employee representative body has successfully merged empathetic interests to drive the company forward. The union has Management interest at heart with the leadership in turn also not heavy handed. Consistent with the empathetic nature of the leadership, management does recognise the boycott of the 50th Anniversary celebrations with respectful understanding that it is a position and belief of most unionised employees held. Koolatotse Koolatotse, Jwaneng Mine General Manager has implored managers to engage affected employees in non-punitive objectivity. One can only hope that this impasse does not serve as a catalyst to undo a relationship that has blossomed for over 15 years. As fireworks blitzed on the night, lighting up the star filled skies illuminated by the pale yellow moon, local artists marked the night with beauty of music, with the gems of Debswana engraving a memorable milestone. Neil Armstrong sojourn to moon was described as “from earth to the moon for all mankind”. Debswana’s journey is the saviour of Botswana’s humanity.
At independence the beef industry constituted 40% of GDP. Today Debswana dwarfs agricultural contribution to just 3%. A choice by national forebears to vest mineral rights in the state allowed government to spread the developmental agenda across the country. Minerals are a national unifier. Botswana graduated from the list of 24 least developed countries in 1992. Standard and Poors, and Moodys Investor Services have both assigned Botswana investment grades and sovereign grade ratings from 2001 to date as the highest ratings in Africa.
This is not just 50 years in business, but a lifetime of a company that has managed its growth and knowledge, and the staying power to keep an eye towards the future. This is a story of how the initial investment and prudent management by the Board of Governers has lifted a country glaring at eternal condemnation to middle income status. Botswana should be proud of this heritage and history.
Join Debswana in celebrating a journey that ensured all our citizens a common stake and unfettered benefits of our God sent natural resource.
I was…I am…I will!