AAMEG’s Witham Drives Three-Pronged Agenda

MNN African Angle - July 2018

Author: Barry Avery

 

THERE’S one thing about Africa: you either love it or you don’t, as it is a continent that few non-Africans are ambivalent about, writes Barry Avery in African Angle.

In just a few minutes with Bill Witham at the AAMEG offices in West Perth, it becomes clear that this geologist is one who falls in the “love it” category.

Just six months into his leadership of the Australia-Africa Minerals and Energy Group, Witham has taken on the advocacy role with gusto comparable to his predecessors, Bill Turner and Trish O’Reilly – and is aggressively pursuing a three-pronged agenda on behalf of Australians working in Africa: policy; networking and advocacy or as AAMEG website proclaims “ADVOCACY. INSIGHTS. CONNECTIONS.

From his experience in working for the Chamber of Minerals and Energy in Western Australia for 2 ½ years, Witham is firmly of the belief in the regular networking, and intends having sponsored AAMEG get-togethers as frequently as every six weeks.

Another useful life experience to come from the Chamber was on how to deal with populist legislation which has the potential to damage mining. During his time there, he successfully assisted the Chamber in fending off the increase in taxation for iron ore miners proposed by former Nationals leader Brendan Grylls, and subsequently, the gold royalty proposed for WA by the Labor Party government.

Citing Tanzania as an example of poor mining legislation enactment, he says: “I am quite familiar with the populist debate. But you just have to argue that mining is the best and most sustainable economic growth driver that a country can have, rather than relying on aid.

“I am a real believer that mining can do that and can do it in a community-friendly, environmentally responsible way and conform to global standards on transparency, human rights and good governance.

Witham says that other burning policy issues on the AAMEG desk include security, corporate social responsibility, along with potential changes to anti-bribery and corruption legislation.

Fortunately, Witham has the distinction of really treading the continent in all directions; from Egypt in the north, Botswana, Namibia in the south, Kenya in the east and  also the West African nations of Cameroon, Gabon and Niger – all of this giving him a taste of some of the easiest, and most challenging, jurisdictions.

Witham said that fellow geologist and former managing director of Anvil Mining, Bill Turner, had been a good mentor from his experience with a broad range of people, including the World Bank, while developing three copper mines in Democratic Republic of Congo.

“That exposure opened my eyes quite a bit and even though AMMEG has a small staff, we punch well above our weight in terms of getting to organisations such as the World Bank, government ministers, getting into meetings and have audiences to put our points across,” he said.

Witham firmly believes that is the core role of AAMEG. “Individual companies just don’t feel the need to put themselves out there in the spotlight, they need associations like AAMEG to back them up.”

Witham is first and foremost a geologist, but an interestingly varied career has exposed him to multiple disciplines.

He qualified with his geology degree from the University of Western Australia in the 1980s and did some field exploration work, on the drill rigs, before joining global airborne survey company World Geoscience, a company with which he spent nine years.

He has done some venture capital work, lived in South America and Cape Town for a couple of years, and also five years in Esperance doing some farming and working for Curtin University of Technology, which has a mini-campus there.

He also worked for the Goldfields-Esperance Development Commission at the time that BHP Billiton was building the Ravensthorpe nickel laterite project there.

“There was a lot of work around the Ravensthorpe development, getting the state infrastructure established and getting the port ready.”

He returned to Perth during the peak of the mining boom in 2006/7 was involved in the floats of a few exploration companies.

“That is when we picked up a few African projects in DMC Mining, so I kept going back to Africa and ended up running a company called Waratah Resources which was working on an iron ore in Congo (Brazzaville) near the Gabon border.

Witham also had a flirtation with politics, running for the federal seat of O’Connor in WA on behalf of the National Party. This led him to the stint with the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, giving him experience with major companies BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Woodside in WA’s Pilbara.

“That really opened me up to a whole new side of the mining business, government relations, community relations and other issues. I went back into consulting after that until AAMEG rang me up at the end of last year to say this job had come up.”

Looking ahead, Witham is cautiously upbeat that the mining sector is coming out of the doldrums in which it has found itself over the past couple of years. He cites the improvement in accessing capital.

“The capital people are quite buoyant, they are able to raise money for projects. But there are still some concerns about this rising socialist agenda in Africa. It is a worry and in some ways, it is getting tougher. But with rising commodity prices, the incentive is there to explore and find more.

“The other elephant in the room is China; everywhere and anything, in the end, comes back to China. China has the demand for metals, but they are also competing with you for exploration ground. There are new dynamics going on out there which makes my job really interesting,” Witham said.

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