De Beers Voorspoed Mine: A jewel in the heart of Free State

In challenging economic times many industries have turned to waste reduction processes as a means to saving money. For diamond mining giants De Beers, the Voorspoed Mine has proved an unmitigated success in the 5 years since re-opening, with recent efficiency initiatives being driven by a diverse workforce, rather than management.

The Voorspoed mine is an open pit diamond mine located about 30 kilometres north-east of Kroonstad, in the Free State. It has a rich history dating back to 1906 and was acquired by De Beers in 1912 from Voorspoed Mining Company, although De Beers did not operate the mine immediately; remarkably the site remained dormant for almost a whole century.

In 2003 the company began the long process to restore the mine to an operational entity and the R1.3-billion project was officially opened in 2008. Benford Mokoatle, General Manager at Voorspoed, joined the company (De Beers) roughly a decade ago and takes up the story:

Voorspoed is an  open pit diamond mine but following its acquisition, the mine was never operational under De Beers, due to the markets. The decision was taken to restore the mine in 2003 and by 2006 we had received approval for all of the required licenses. The mine was officially reopened in November 2008,” he recalls.

Of course the markets dictated that it was practicable to reopen Voorspoed and the mine was always well known for its special stones, having earned that reputation in the early years of the last century.

However, whilst the economy made it look like a good venture, as an organisation De Beers is also committed to investing in the social space and  in sustaining the job market,” Mokoatle continues.

According to Mokoatle, in the initial stages of the project, the mine provided approximately 1,200 jobs, including the contractors involved in the construction phase. Today the site operates with about 900 employees, with a special focus on diversity, as Mokoatle explains:

When we started one of the challenges was to recruit the right people to help establish and run a safe and profitable mine. This was not a mining town so most of the people in Kroonstad did not have a mining background or the operating skills for an open pit mine.

Prior to modernising the site, we recruited people fresh from school at grade 12 education. We looked to employ young people who were not exposed to the industry and the training was very intensive. We also have a focus on recruiting women and approximately 31 per cent of the Voorspoed workforce is women while women in the technical space are in the region of 27 per cent of the total workforce. The historically disadvantaged South Africans makes 88 per cent of the total workforce while people leaving with disability make about 1.8 per cent of the total workforce.”

Extracting diamonds from the ore is a relatively straight forward process, with the company investing regularly in technology and new equipment designed to improve efficiency.

We are an open pit mine so for us to extract the ore means we have to strip the waste. We use 17 metre cubed shovels and 90 ton to 136 ton trucks (777’s and 785’s respectively) to mine waste and ore. The waste is sent to the waste rock dump and concurrently rehabilitated to reduce closure liability while the ore is sent to the plant for further treatment and recovery of diamonds.  “At the processing plant we crush the ore to different sizes and use the Dense Media Separators (DMS) to bulk reduces the material and separate diamondiferous ore from non diamondiferous material. The diamondiferous material will be process further using the state of the art technology to recover the diamonds. The water used in the process is all recycled,” Mokoatle describes.

Once the diamonds have been recovered, they are sent to the Diamond Trading Centre (DTC) in Kimberley, where they are subjected to further processing, sorting and valuing. “Production averages 15 million tonnes per years, which is comprised of 3 million tonnes of ore and roughly 12 million tonnes of waste. We recover between 600,000 and 800,000 carats although that figure varies from year to year,” he adds.

When a company investigates methods to improve production efficiency, this is often met with concerns from the labour force. It is hugely reassuring to learn that at Voorspoed Mine, the employees are fully engaged in improvements at every step:

Our rapid results projects have been managed with some great success and continue to deliver savings and improvements,” Mokoatle reflects. “All of these projects aim to drive responsibility and accountability beyond management recommendations, encouraging employees in small teams to identify operational constraints and to come up with solutions.

The concept is to monitor performance over a period of 100 days once changes have been made. Progress is then monitored on daily and weekly basis where bottlenecks will continuously be identified and solutions given to resolve the issues. Rapid Results projects therefore give us the small step changes that the business desires and this is all driven by the workforce.”

Mokoatle says that the initiative has been introduced across the De Beers group and has produced fantastic results at Voorspoed Mine. Indeed in H1 of 2013, the mine announced that it had increased its production by some 1.4 million tons of waste or 25 per cent compared against budget.

Ideas generated through rapid results have also reduced plant down times, and reduced the waiting time for the delivery trucks by some 20 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. Feedback is provided on a regular basis for employees and Mokoatle feels that the De Beer approach to employee relations is equally an important part of the mine’s success.

I am also appreciative of the support given by the Corporate Head Quarters. I believe in using people from various entities as sounding boards when faced with challenges. In De Beers we have certainly got plenty of support when needed,” he says. “Discipline leads and people working in other operations can often provide a fresh angle to a subject. Those relationships have been further strengthened by the company’s commitment to corporate social investment, which has enhanced education and developed sustainable enterprise opportunities for local communities.

As citizens of South Africa we have to leave a legacy,” comments Mokoatle, “and we have invested in education, educational infrastructure, whilst we have also provided investment to encourage small businesses to prosper locally. Overall we have helped to create over 310 new jobs in the region and established around 24 new businesses since 2011.

After nearly a century of inactivity, Voorspoed Mine’s regeneration is proving a huge success not only for De Beers, but for the whole surrounding community, with Mokoatle looking forward to many more years of productivity:

Voorspoed is currently scheduled to last until 2021, but we are looking at projects now that could potentially expand the mine and extend its life span, We continue to invest in equipment. In 2012 we invested over R200 million in 5 new trucks and 2 new shovels and in 2013 we have invested in just above R40 million in new trucks. This equipment has been purchased to assist with the mining and in allowing us to realise our dream,” he concludes.