Monday, 3 August 2009

Mining Burundi

Nope, not the kind that blow up kids and tanks, the kind that extract nickel. This weekend I was at Bora Bora, and met a South African man sitting alone. It was a slightly awkward conversation – he was very much a member of the distressingly-large number of white people who’ve spent their lives in Africa who always seems to be on the point of saying something racist, but never quite crosses the line, so you spend the whole conversation talking about how great your Burundian friends are so as to make the point that you’d rather they didn’t say anything racist. If you’ve spent enough time in expat bars in Africa you’ll know what I mean. But the conversation was interesting, so I stuck with it.

He had been in Burundi for about six months, and initially to investigate the possibility of a nickel mine and now in the process of starting it up; he expected this to take another 18 months. He worked for a South African company (he did tell me which but I was a couple of Primuses in by this stage and I honestly can’t remember!), and we talked a little about how important South African finance is for African development; my personal feeling is that South African companies are better at taking individual African countries on their own merits, rather than having a knee-jerk country-emerging-from-conflict reaction of “No Way!”. Added to this the fact that they’re prepared to absorb more risk in Africa, and you can see why they can be crucial to the development of countries like Burundi; there’s no way that a Western company would be starting a mine here until after next year’s election.

Now obviously, there are questions about whether finding natural resources is a good thing – the natural resource curse is well known – but my feeling is that Burundi has done a pretty good job of beating itself up without natural resources, so having them can’t be a whole lot worse. Plus there’s the fact that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, so any investment and any jobs created are a Good Thing. It’s also optimistic that an Anglophone company, led by staff who don’t speak French, is managing to operate in Burundi – Rwanda is already progressing well in its shift towards English, and now that both countries are members of the East African Community, English will be crucial to their development. This is something Burundians recognise – Everyone seems to want to learn English, and I’ve been surprised by the number of people who at least understand it* – but which it is pretty hard to actually do. One of the things I spent the whole of my first month trying to find out was what Burundi actually exports, eventually working out that the answer was coffee, tea and flowers. Those aren’t a great basis for an entire economy, so I hope that diversifying into raw materials as well will help the country.

One last thing; he told me that they will be exporting via Tanzania, because they are in the South of the country. This pleased me greatly; I find it very hard to understand why, when Mombasa is further than Dar and involves three border crossings instead of one, and the main roads in Tanzania are generally better, all of Burundi’s produce seems to go out through Rwanda – incidentally also making Burundi vulnerable to disturbance in three countries instead of just one. I keep asking my Burundian friends why this is, and apart from vague aspersions about Rwandan hegemony, they don’t generally have a clear answer. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one that sees the other way as making more sense!

*I’ve got a theory that DSTV showings of premiership matches help by exposing people to English, but this might be just one of my theories!

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