West Africa the new Pilbara?

As the resources boom slows down in Australia and iron ore prices tumble, West Africa's untapped resources are drawing eyes away from the Pilbara.

With troubled times in the Pilbara as Gina Rinehart's Roy Hill mine defers construction, BHP cuts its workforce and expansion plans, and Fortescue slashes costs and workers, many major miners are looking to the next hot iron ore region, according to Mining Weekly.

It comes as iron ore exports from Port Hedland to China slip 9% this month.

Some majors have already begun operations in the region, with Rio Tinto running the Simandou mine in Guinea, Vale in Liberia and Guinea, Arcelormittal and BHP Billiton in Guinea at the Nimba project, as well as BHP's interest in a mineral development agreement with the Liberian government,  and Xstrata carrying out feasibility studies at its El Aouj, Askaf, and Lebtheinia iron ore projects in Mauritania.

According to Vale the iron ore projects in Guinea are considered to be "one of the best underdeveloped iron ore deposits in the world in terms of size and quality".

The Asian century

The Chinese have also been shifting their focus away from Australia and the relatively high cost of doing business to these new resources that are lower cost to operate.

Speaking at the 2012 Africa Down Under Conference earlier this year, John Welborn, the chief of Equatorial Resources, a junior which runs Badondo and Mayoko-Moussondji projects in the Republic of Congo, said that a major part of the Chinese move is due to the fact that it is looking for alternate supplies of iron ore.

He explained that more than 75% of its seaborne iron ore comes from Australia, Brazil, and India, adding that it is suffering from the high costs and low profitability of buying from foreign miners.

This was supported by the Wu Xichun China Iron & Steel Association which stated that "by 2015 China wants to import 50% of its iron ore from Chinese owned mines elsewhere in the world".

Welborn asked that if world demand doubles by 2030, where will the extra production come from?

It is unlikely that Australia and Brazil alone will be able to fulfill this massive demand.

“This has caused a race to production along the West Africa coastline, with companies worldwide aiming to develop iron-ore projects,” said Welborn.

The new iron ore west

West Africa, or the 'new Pilbara' as some have called it, looks capable of filling this shortfall.

Particularly for Chinese companies looking to own and develop their own mines.

This was supported by Anglo Gold Ashanti CEO Mark Cutifani.

Speaking at the Sydney Mining Club earlier this year, he said that the next century will see China turn away from Australia and Brazil, and focus on the under developed resources that Africa has to offer.

"Everyone is predicting that this century will be the Asian century, the Chinese century, but to achieve this it will need a steady supply of materials, and this need will be met by Africa.

"I predict that this coming century will not be the Chinese century, but the Chinese/ African century," he said.

Counting the costs

Tax regimes have also pushed the Chinese, and others, offshore to look at Africa.

Australian Mining has previously reported that "African countries are now in an advantageous position as more mining companies from developing countries like China, India and Brazil, have started to look at the under explored opportunities in a continent whose mining sector was earlier dominated by mining concerns from the developed world, such as the U.S.A., Britain, Europe, and Australia.

"Brazil's Vale SA and China's Minmetals Resources Ltd. are among the major players from the developing world who are trying to make serious inroads into the African mining sector."

With the spiraling costs, threat of union unrest, and unsupportive government, it is little wonder that many miners are now eyeing these deposits which are comparable to Brazil's iron ore mines.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Geoff Breen told Australian Mining the wider perspective for West African-focused companies was generally positive.

But he said market instability led by the crisis in Europe was making life hard for emerging miners and had caused an overall de-rating in the market.

Breen said while such uncertainty would normally boost confidence, it had impacted costs and "squeezed margins" for mining companies.

"That's part of the de-rating of the sector," he said.

A bump in the road

However, it will not be all smooth sailing, particularly for the Chinese.

Increased worker unrest and rioting has hit Africa, with miners demanding higher wages and greater safety on site.

Aside from the major worker unrest in South Africa, Chinese owned mines have seen serious riots, with the Chinese manager murdered at one Chinese run mine in Zambia, on the opposite side of the continent.

Workers at the Collum coal mine were protesting over the company's failure to increase the minimum wage to the previously agreed upon $320 a month.

Miners killed Chinese mine manager Wu Shengzai and injured another company representative, Zambian police said at the time.

Wu was killed when he attempted to escape the miners by entering into the underground mine and rioters crushed him by shoving a coal trolley into him.

Image: ABC

Eleven Zambians were injured during the riot.

This is not the first time the mine has seen violent industrial action between workers and the Chinese run management.

Last year management fired upon the workers, and although they were charged with attempted murder, these charges were dropped.

Chinese owned companies have come under attack from Human Rights Watch over their actions in their state owned copper mines.

In a report entitled "You'll be fired if you refuse" the group outlines the horrible conditions faced by Zambian miners.

HRW stated that "miners from the Chinese-owned companies described consistently poor health and safety standards, including inadequate ventilation that can lead to serious lung diseases, the failure to replace workers’ damaged protective equipment, and routine threats to fire workers who refuse to work in unsafe places underground".

The African century

With this increasing demand, West Africa will draw more miners, and more investment.

Despite many issues with infrastructure, the increased development of mines will see the parallel development or road and rail.

A new resources boom in the nation will truly see the growth of West Africa as the new Pilbara, and the dawn of the African century.