West Africa: A brave new world

One of the biggest new stories in the mining industry is the prospect of developing West Africa. 
And plenty of Australian companies are taking notice. 
One country in particular, Burkina Faso, has been slated for development by a number of Australian and international companies. 
The region has vast mining potential, particularly for gold, iron ore, and other base metals. 
But it also has its own problems and challenges, both in business and politics. 
This month Australian Mining caught up with one of Burkina Faso's most prominent Australian miners, Gryphon Minerals, and got the low-down on developing business and politics in the region from managing director Steve Parsons. 
Banfora project 
Gryphon is an exploration company that's developed a presence in Burkina Faso through its Banfora gold project. 
Parsons told Australian Mining Gryphon was the first Australian company to settle in the region in modern times and the country was a "great place to do business". 
While the potential for development is now high, Parsons said the country had not always been so busy. 
"When we first arrived there were no mines operating in Burkina Faso," he said. 
But since a change to the mining code in 2004, the country has seen a spate of new discoveries and a rush of international investment. 
Parsons said at present there were six mines operating in Burkina Faso and around 20 Australian companies interested in the region. 
These figures are set to grow higher based on the rising confidence in the region. 
"It's gone from zero gold production to the fourth largest gold producing country in Africa, which is quite remarkable in the space of only a few years," he said. 
"The Government is really supportive of foreign investment in mining and they see it as a way to pull themselves out of poverty." 
So far Gryphon has made an inferred resource discovery of 2 million ounces at Banfora, with more to come at a target of 3 million ounces. 
"This time next year we'll be in development on the project and by 2014 we'll be pouring gold in Burkina Faso," Parson says. 
If it stays on schedule the company is set to be the first Austra­lian miner to be pouring gold in the region. 
Risky business? 
Translated to English Burkina Faso means 'the land of incorruptible men' and Parsons says Gryhpon has not had any trouble in the region since it started there in 2007. 
"We've never seen any corruption there at any level, it's a really good place to be," he says. 
"It's a country that's never had any violence in its history, there's never been a war there." 
Parsons also told Australian Mining Burkina Faso's democratic leaders were "genuinely loved and respected" and because there were few tribal factions "everyone gets on with each other". 
But while companies continue to line up to make a start in Burkina Faso the Australian Government says all is not well in the region's ­local politics. 
Like many countries in West ­Africa Burkina Faso is struggling with poverty and with poverty comes unrest. 
The Australian Government currently advises travellers to reconsider visiting Burkina Faso because of the risk of "civil unrest and violent crime. 
"Armed bandits operate through­out Burkina Faso. You should avoid travelling alone or ­after dark," it says. 
The Government also strongly advises against travelling near the border regions around neighbouring Mali, which has suffered significant civil strife and which has a "high risk of kidnapping targeting foreign nationals". 
While Parsons told Australian Mining Gryphon's projects were well removed from any violence or crime, a question mark still remains over much of the wider region. 
But global issues are as much a concern for the company as Bur­kina Faso's local politics, and on this front the experts are bullish. 
The market 
RBC Capital Markets analyst Geoff Breen told Australian Mining the wider perspective for West African-focused gold 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 in gold, it had impacted costs and "squeezed margins" for mining companies. 
"That's part of the de-rating of the sector," he said. 
On Gryphon's share price in particular Breen sounded confidence but said the company would have to wait out some of the current economic turmoil, which it had the profile and cash reserves to achieve. 
"Gryphon is in line with the emerging sector," he said.  
And on the market in general he was bullish, despite some of its problems. 
"It's complex. It's all about ­confidence at the moment and con­fidence in the market has shattered," he said. 
"But I think the risk/reward on the gold sector is heavily skewed to the north." 
While Gryphon is undoubtedly facing some challenges with its Banfora project the development sounds a welcome and exciting international presence in Burkina Faso. 
The mine will be a well needed development in a region desperate for investment, and as one of the most established Australian miners in West Africa, Gryphon will be one to watch. 
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