[Startup Interview] Frank Balestra, Founder, AB Minerals & Made for Africa Eco-Friendly solution
Frank Balestra is a Canadian who has lived in Africa the better part of the last five years, both in the DRC and Rwanda. This has given him a good understanding of the people, the African culture, the countries and the coltan industry. His vision is to create a coltan processing solution that can be implemented in the countries where the coltan is produced, allowing for its value to remain in the country while creating socioeconomic benefits for the people and their country.
What does your company do?
AB Minerals Corp. has created a revolutionary new Made for Africa Eco-Friendly separation technology to process coltan (tantalite bearing minerals) into high purity Tantalum and Niobium from Certified Conflict-Free ore directly in-country at the source of the minerals. The technology is proven, the plants have been designed and the Company is now in discussions on where these plants will be implemented. Management expects to be back in Africa in August to finalize some of these discussions. Over the next twelve months, the Company expects to have its first two plants in operation.
When was AB Minerals founded and who are its shareholders?
AB Minerals is a private company that I founded in late 2011. The shareholders are primarily North American investors.
What is the socioeconomic Impact of this project?
The major beneficiaries of this project are the Artisanal & Small Scale Mining Companies and Cooperatives that represent a significant portion of the total miners in many countries.
With a focus to develop SME’s (Small & Medium Sized Enterprises) in rural areas, it further contributes to reducing the economic disparity between rural areas and the major cities in a country. Miners will be able to receive higher prices for their ore by selling directly to a local smelter rather than to agents. It will also create many high-quality jobs for the local population. A coltan smelter will play an important role in assisting the mining sector in the country to grow and prosper, while generating increased tax revenue for the country from the export of value-added products.
How is your company funded?
The company has been funded primarily by myself, family and angel investors located mainly in North America.
What are your company’s Unique Selling Points?
For the first time in the history of coltan processing, AB Minerals’ process will make it possible to have processing at the source of the mineral production in Africa, instead of exporting ore from the continent at the lowest end of the value chain. Currently the majority of coltan produced in Africa is shipped to smelters in China, with some also going to Europe.
What product do you get from processing the coltan and what is it used for?
The plant will produce high purity Tantalum powder and Niobium hydroxide.
Tantalum is widely used in modern electronics – capacitors, microchips, optoelectronic & acoustoelectronic devices, in optics, as additives and coatings, in special alloys manufacturing and the nuclear and aerospace industries, to name a few.
The most important application for Niobium is as an alloying element to strengthen high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steels used in automobiles, high-pressure gas transmission pipelines and jet engines.
Why do you call this a Made for Africa Eco-Friendly solution?
The process is a low power solution designed to operate in environments with inconsistent power sources, like many of the regions of Africa where these plants will be implemented. Unlike conventional processing methods that have been in use for decades, this process has replaced Hydrofluoric Acid with a chemical reagent that is much safer to handle and significantly less costly. The plant has been designed to be environmentally friendly, with measures included to reduce water and energy consumption, while creating no soil, water, or air pollution. The process will also remove any naturally occurring radioactivity in the ore, so that it can be safely stored for future disposal. Because of its design, these plants can be installed in any jurisdiction in the world and will meet even the most rigorous environmental standards.
You mention changing the industry & the world perception of coltan. How do you plan to achieve this?
Business practices change when there is a significantly increased value proposition available.
Supply chain integrity is an important component of the coltan industry. In 2010 the Dodd-Frank Act mandated that coltan produced in certain parts of Africa be Certified Conflict-Free. In order for a mining organization to sell its minerals to AB MINERALS’s smelter, they will be obligated to join and comply with the rules of iTRi. The Company also intends to implement the Better Sourcing Program (BSP) to further aid in supply chain integrity. One of AB MINERALS’s Advisory Board members, William Millman, was a participant in the development of BSP. AB MINERALS will assist miners through an education division on how to enter and comply with these systems. The incentive for the miners to do so, will be driven by significantly improved economics by dealing directly with the in-country smelter.
How are your plants designed?
The plants have been designed much like microbreweries, to be modular and scalable so that the amount of processing capacity can be increased to accommodate increasing ore production in a region. By comparison to conventional processing methods, the AB Minerals’ process has significantly lower capital (CAPEX) and operating (OPEX) costs. With a lower cost of operation, the Company will be able to process lower grade tantalite ores that would previously have been deemed uneconomical.
How is radioactivity in the ore being handled?
Tantalite bearing ores in some countries may contain naturally occurring radiation (uranium and thorium). More ports today are monitoring for Class 7 radiation, rendering this type of ore non-transportable and non-saleable, without either expensive special handling or removing it during processing before it leaves the country. In the event that these elements exceed safe environmental standards, the Company is able to safely extract the uranium and thorium through its process, and safely store the material for future disposal. With AB Minerals’ in-country processing solution, deposits containing radioactivity can now be mined to bring significant value to the country and its miners.
How has the market responded to this service you provide?
Very well. We have received a very positive response from the miners, the governments who are looking for value-added solutions for their resources and the companies that will be our customers.
And who are your customers?
This process will allow AB Minerals to be suppliers to many industries; superalloys, aerospace, and medical, to name a few. The Company has received expressions of interest from a number of alloy companies for the products that will be produced. In addition, with the ability to customize the final product to customer specifications, the market will widen significantly.
What is AB Minerals’ vision?
To change the current value proposition for countries exporting their minerals at the lowest value, by installing plants in each country with enough supplies and transforming the minerals into high value-added products directly in-country.
What does your company need to grow and prosper?
AB Minerals is currently looking for the right financial and business partners to begin the worldwide rollout of these processing facilities, with the initial focus on African countries that are producing sufficient quantities of coltan to warrant a plant.
What is the latest news from AB Minerals?
We recently announced that Frank Mugyenyi, Senior Industry Adviser to the Department of Trade and Industry for the African Union Commission (AUC) has joined our Advisory Board as Africa Development Advisor.
Mr. Mugyenyi is a development economist with vast experience and specialization in economics for African development and is spearheading the implementation of the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) as a framework to optimize exploitation of Africa’s abundant resources to underpin a broad based social and economic structural transformation of African economies.
I'd like to conclude with a direct quote from Frank Mugyenyi:
“African nations are pushing for increased domestic beneficiation of their minerals. Countries should halt the export of unprocessed ore when upgrading is available in the region. Africa has to Walk the Talk, make integration work and take advantage of Africa’s natural resources for sustainable development. With the arrival of AB Minerals’ Made for Africa Eco-Friendly Coltan (Tantalite) Processing Solution, there will be no reason for countries to export unprocessed Coltan anymore.”
Africa Business Communities is conducting a series of interviews with startup businesses in Africa.
Are you a startup in Africa and interested in an interview? Great! Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org