Saturday 15 May 2021
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‘Mafuta’ thriving in unchartered waters

Namibia’s entrance into the little-known offshore mining arena has set the country on an unheralded path of growth as far as offshore diamond mining is concerned.

When the De Beers Group gave the greenlight for the Debmarine Namibia offices to relocate from South Africa to Namibia, it knew little of the success such a move would bring.

Debmarine Namibia was relocated from Cape Town to Namibia in 2002, and today employs about 1000 people, of whom 90% are Namibians. Debmarine Namibia has a fleet of five mining vessels.

So the location is not the only pivotal need for success, as a grand project, modern mining equipment and tools are instrumental to ensure successful operations. Anchored steadily in the Atlantic Ocean on a cool Monday afternoon while its built-in N$100 million crawler mines hundreds of metres underground is the world’s most advanced and largest mining vessel codenamed MV Mafuta.

The 2012 purchasing of MV Mafuta, which means seas or oceans in the Oshiwambo language was a big gamechanger for the company as far as production levels are concerned.

Mafuta produces over 350 000 carats of diamonds per annum or 30% of the annual production which makes her the biggest carat contributor and revenue generator for the company for both onshore and offshore operations.

The state-of -the art vessel is fitted with a crawler-mounted dredge which is designed to mine for 100 hours continuously. The vessel is 174 metres long and 24 metres beam and can provide lodging for over 100 people.

Mafuta is the flagship vessel of Debmarine Namibia, a 50/50 joint venture between the Namibian government and De Beers.

De Beers Marine provides technical support and five exploration vessels for the venture’s Atlantic 1 concession, which is just offshore from Oranjemund near the South African border. The helicopter flight from Oranjemund Airport to the concession site is about 20 minutes long.

Debmarine organized a media tour aboard the gigantic vessel on Monday to explain the operations onboard as well as to interact with the crew.

The vessel is commanded by Master(Captain) Talent Kapipilo, a Namibian national, who has shown that the impossible can be achieved as far as break into the foreign-dominated field is concerned.

Kapipilo tells this reporter that it took him a decade to qualify as a Master of the ship.

“It was not easy but I pushed on, some years I was at school and the others I was practicing. But I must say the journey was well worth it,” said Kapipilo as he brimmed with confidence.

Kapipilo quickly changed from his formal gear to an orange overall full of grease stains, a sign that apart from navigating the vessel, he also gets his hands dirty with his crew members.

He took the news team on a tour around the vessel after introducing some of the key personnel on the vessel and laying down all safety regulations on the vessel.

True to a Master’s nature, Kapipilo knows all corners of the ship like the palm of his hand.

The ship might look somewhat lifeless upon first glance, yet inside the crewmen play a central role in the vessel’s life and their actions are subjected to close scrutiny as they go about their 12-hour shifts. Aware that this is the most productive out of all five Debmarine-owned vessels, each crew member could be seen carrying out their work with complete dedication and total concentration.

As Kapipilo takes the news team on tour from the engine room to the cockpit, he underscores the fact that he is fully aware of the huge responsibility on his shoulders-which entails ensuring the safety of his crew as well as the well-being of the N$650 million dollar vessel.

Two mining technologies are used at the mine and these are the airlift drill technology and crawler-mounted technology that is highly advanced and supported with sophisticated tracking, positioning and surveying equipment.

The diamond gravel is then treated in the plant on-board before being transported to Windhoek for further sorting at the Namibia Diamond Trading Company.

“I am the only one who is supposed to be in the canning room, not even the Master of the ship can be here,” boasted Kleofas Hasie Shikongo, who is the Marine Production Supervisor.

Shikongo, who has been with the De Beers Group for the past 29 years, took the news team down the never-ending steps all the way to the canning room where diamonds are canned.

“We do not touch any of the diamonds that mine, from the time the diamonds are brought onto the vessel from the ocean floor until they are canned and transported to Windhoek. That arrangement is mainly to ensure safety,” he said while displaying how the canning system works.

Hasie, as Shikongo as affectionately known by his crew mates, is the face of Debmarine’s Honesty Campaign.

Shikongo explains that the security apparatus on the vessel tracks all movements, with closed circuit television cameras planted at key areas on the vessel.

Mafuta has undoubtedly proven to be a worthy investment for De Beers, it is a pity that not many Namibians are privileged to get a sight of the flawless design and operations of the vessel.

While it is the vessel’s structure that makes it remarkable, it has other properties, too.

It uses, for example, biodegradable oil, sewerage is treated on-board before being disposed into the ocean and there is on-board freshwater production facilities.

“We are very respectful as far as preserving the environment and observing environmental laws is concerned. We periodically undergo the Lloyds audit( a leading international provider of classification, compliance and consultancy services to the marine industry, helping our clients design, construct and operate their assets to the highest levels of safety and performance) to ensure that we are compliant to international laws,” said Kapipilo.

Although crew members are stuck on the vessel for 28 days, Talent said the vessel is designed in such a way that it gives off a homely environment for the crew.

“You work for 28 days and go rest for 28 days. There is a television room, mobile network, gym facilities and a fully-fledged kitchen for the crew. We try to make their stay on the vessel as comfortable as possible,” he said.

The vessel’s remarkable design makes it a landmark. Mafuta’s seafaring and maritime attributes explains why its production levels are so high.

Crawler technology

Also, the submersible crawler attached to the rear-end of the vessel heralds the technological prowess of Mafuta. The ship currently has two crawlers, of which one is stored in Cape Town.

The crawler uses a nozzle to slurp up tonnes of sediment an hour from ancient submerged beaches as it scours the ocean floor for diamonds carried from the Orange River to the Atlantic millions years ago.

It is controlled remotely by a mining vessel.

The crawler, which weighs some 400 tonnes, operates on the seabed and recovers diamonds by sucking up sand and silt about 140 meters underwater which is filtered and processed onboard. The tank tread system ensures that it can navigate the rough ocean-floor terrain as it ensures vehicle propulsion.

The crawler, which are built by De Beers Marine, are track mounted with a hydraulically operated slewing boom with nozzle and are designed for a maximum submerged time of seven days.

As Debmarine Namibia mines at water depths of 90 to 140 metres, the 285 tonne crawlers are ideal and are thus far the most advanced underwater mining machines.

Due to the success of Mafuta, there are talks that the company plans to procure its second crawler vessel by 2022.

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