Akobo Minerals: Exuding Excellence and Re-Establishing Ethiopia’s History of Gold Exploration


AkoboWhile today Ethiopia is not thought of as a hotbed of gold mining, this activity has a legendary history in this East African country. Ethiopian mines have been providing gold to the ancient Egyptian empire, and possibly even to King Solomon’s Mines and the Queen of Sheba for centuries. The Asosa zone of Ethiopia could contain the oldest known gold mine in the world, which is almost 6,000 years old and one company, Akobo Minerals, is hoping to put the country firmly back on the map in these modern times as it aims to develop an infrastructure of world-class gold exploration and mining operations.

Akobo Minerals is a Scandinavian-based gold exploration company, with ongoing exploration and small-scale mining developments in the Gambela region and Dima district of southwest Ethiopia. The history of the company goes back to 2009 when people with powerful experiences from both the public mining sector in Ethiopia and the Norwegian oil service industry began exploration activities under two licenses, which have been renewed each year. The company was formed following a chance meeting in 2009, between Ethiopian-Norwegian businessmen and local Ethiopian license holders who highlighted the opportunities in the Akobo region. Gold was being found here by local artisans but no companies had performed modern exploration work.

In the intervening years, Akobo Minerals has transformed itself to support an increased pace of core drilling at both its key targets in Segele and Joru. The company has released exceptionally high-grade gold results in the Segele deposit, while core drilling and trenching at Joru have intersected both high-grade gold zones and large wide zones near the surface.


A Paradigm Shift for Better Mining Service

In 2020, a significant step was taken to move from just exploration to also embracing mining. After securing the necessary licensing, Akobo is now engaged in mining studies to advance the project to production, alongside exploration core drilling. Specifically, Akobo Minerals secured the rights to a five-year mining license covering 16 square kilometers of the Segele mineralization and other promising targets – extendable in 10-year increments. This is an important moment in the development of the company and a step-change in the operational activity in the region, whereby it is now leveraging the bonanza-grade gold that was found in 2020.


An Experienced Leader with Distinct Knowledge

Much of the success in taking the company forward in the past couple of years has been down to Matt Jackson, COO of Akobo Minerals. He has over 15 years of mining and exploration experience and wide commodity experience from BHP, Billiton, and Golder Associates. Matt is also a Chartered Professional Member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

In the year before he joined the company as a consultant, he wrote the competent persons’ report before Akobo’s initial public offering (IPO). It was this document that provided the framework for partners, investors, the international mining industry, and other stakeholders to be able to understand and evaluate the company, as well as set out in ‘black and white’ the company’s operational performance and, therefore, what it needed to do to further professionalize its activities. This was particularly pertinent, as Akobo made its major findings, demanding that the company further improve its operational excellence.


Sustainability and Community-Based Initiatives for Development

Matt says that the purpose of the company’s creation, of course, was to explore for and find gold, but this has now extended to becoming a mining operation as the company believes it has the skills to extract the resources that have been found before. From the outset, though, Akobo Minerals always wanted to develop its business by putting the environment, social, and governance (ESG) at the heart of its operation, to be recognized as an ESG-friendly, mineral exploration and development company. He claims that the company has always made sustainability and community-based initiatives the bedrock of its operations and the recent appointment of world-renowned ESG guru, Cathryn MacCallum, further enhanced the direction of operations for the company.

Since the first decade of operation, Akobo Minerals could be described as a frontier company, going out into the wild west and searching for gold, mentions Matt. But the last two years or so have seen a transformation of the business as its exploration activities have proven to be highly successful and the operation has expanded through additional funding, with an increase in personnel, particularly employing Ethiopian locals. He adds that this support from the locals to join the company has reduced operational risks considerably. Akobo has been able to gain the support of the local community while, at the same time, bringing on board the knowledge from locals who were previously artisan miners.


Hallmarks of Being Distinct and Exceptional in the Industry

By far the most important achievement in recent years has been the bonanza-grade findings that have been made since 2019; after all, that is the raison d’être of the company, reveals Matt. He says that Akobo’s geologist’s talk of a ‘once in a lifetime finds’ of one of the highest-grade deposits in the world. And since realizing the opportunity that the company had discovered, it has slowly built its operation, with the right people and the right resources, and at the right timescales. Balancing this opportunity, along with acting as a sustainable operator in the local community, has been both a great achievement and the reason for its success today.

Matt mentions that in recognition of this, at the end of 2021, the company was shortlisted as ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) Explorer/Developer Mining Company of the Year, despite being such a small operation.

He highlights that as CEO, Jørgen Evjen, said at the time: “Every employee can be proud of the part they have played in helping to build our world-class ESG program – one that is already benefiting the local population on the ground in Ethiopia where we are successfully building our exploration and mining activities. ESG will always be at the heart of our corporate philosophy.”

According to Matt, the company has established a particularly strong focus on securing Ethiopian management and training Ethiopians to an international standard. The team focuses on being logistically simpler than using ex-pat services, as the local workforce adds resilience to the company. The COVID epidemic, for example, showed that local people on the ground could ensure that the operation was being continued unabated – something that could not have happened if it needed to rely on foreign personnel that would not have been able to travel to the country. He continues that at the same time, best-in-class resources – from geologists to engineering – have been brought in when it was possible and needed from countries like Australia, South Africa, the UK, and others. However, training programs will ensure that these skills will be transferred to local staff, which will not only aid Akobo but the wider mining skill resources in Ethiopia in coming years.


Empowering Ethiopia with Home-Built Opportunities

Matt states that Akobo Minerals’ intention is to run the business in a sustainable fashion, which is not something that foreign companies have always done before in Ethiopia. They would, for example, maximize overseas hiring and purchasing opportunities before looking into Ethiopia. Akobo’s philosophy has been completely the opposite. It has always aimed to buy as much as it can in Ethiopia and employ as many Ethiopian staff as it can.

In addition to making good financial and operational sense, the company believes this strategy helps to insulate it against resource nationalism by supporting the local and national economy. Along with this, Akobo sees this as a model for good governance which it believes has not gone unnoticed and certainly helped it when it has been negotiating its mining license with the Ethiopian government. While it took only seven weeks to secure theirs, many foreign companies have taken seven months or longer to negotiate their own mining licenses.

With the groundwork that the company has laid in the past two years – and, really, over the past 12 years since entering the country – Akobo feels that it is on the cusp of a period of extraordinary success with its gold mining operations in Ethiopia, states Matt. However, the company does not envision its operations today as the sum total of activities in the country. It is quite obvious that if the team realizes opportunities in other locations around the country, or chances to develop further mining activities in the search for nickel or copper, for example, it could utilize its experience to evaluate the potential for further expansion into these areas. A company that has built up such levels of exploration and mining knowledge will definitely use its experience to consider further prospects. But for now, that time is somewhere off in the future. Matt concludes that currently, the Akobo team has much on its plate to extract the most from its operations in Gambela and Dima. But, if the past couple of years is anything to go by, the future looks particularly rosy, or as Akobo likes to call it ‘pure gold’.