Which is hardest – swimming in shark-infested waters, climbing Mount Everest or trying to get international investors to fund your new mining project?

The latter, without a doubt. Just ask Segun Lawson, African mining entrepreneur and CEO of Thor Exploration. The company focuses on early-stage gold projects located in underexplored regions of West Africa.

Lawson is trying to secure up to $75 million of investment for a gold mine that his company wants to build in Nigeria. The obstacles are immense, not least of all because Nigeria isn’t exactly known as a mining destination; it’s more an oil and gas country; and then there’s Nigeria’s public image.

“Let’s face it, there’s a lot of bad press about Nigeria,” he tells Mining for Zambia in an interview. “When people hear the name, I don’t always get a lot of meetings!”

Investors expect a return, so they look at the economic robustness of the project

It’s shortly after 2 pm on the final day of the annual Investing in Africa Mining Indaba, which was held in Cape Town from 5-8 February. Lawson is up on stage, in the final round of the Investment Battlefield competition, in which some 25 entrepreneurs have been pitching their mining projects to a hardnosed panel of international investors from companies ranging from J.P. Morgan and Colonial First State Asset Management to EMR Capital and Rio Tinto.

Lawson has just five minutes to make his pitch. He moves deftly through his slides, conscious of the clock ticking. He delivers his accompanying narrative smoothly and confidently. The panel of investors are listening to his every word, scrutinising his charts and figures, and looking for that special something that will tell them that this project is worth sinking money into.

His short presentation over, they start firing questions at him on various aspects of the project. They are courteous, but firm; they want to make sure Thor Exploration has a sound business case. Lawson fields the questions, always managing to maintain a confident smile.

To those of us watching in the audience, he looks like winner material. But there are still three other hopefuls. The next candidate steps into the limelight to pitch his project, which is also a gold mine, this time in Mauritania; he is followed by another candidate pitching a cobalt mine in Uganda, of all places.

Soon, the Investment Battlefield competition is formally over. The judges retire to deliberate and reach a verdict. Audience members drift out to hear other speeches in the packed programme. When the results are finally announced, they confirm the audience’s initial suspicions – Lawson is the winner. He is suddenly a man in demand. People cluster around him to take his photograph; requests for media interviews proliferate. He grants a short one to Mining for Zambia.

First question – how tough was it? “I’m passionate about this project and know it inside out,” he says. “So, I didn’t find the presenting tough at all. What I did find pretty tough was the feedback and the pointed questions from the panel of investors.”

What are the three most important things investors look for when deciding to invest in a mining project? “Firstly, the management. Can they be trusted, and do they have the capability to implement what they say they’re going to do? Secondly, returns. Investors invest to make money, so they look at the economic robustness of the project, the payback period and the cashflow potential. And thirdly, upside. The exciting thing about early-stage mining is you can have half a million in assets today, you put a few drill holes in and suddenly you’re double that. That’s what investors like to see.”

He adds that investors also want to know that their capital is secure, and that the country where the project is located is a safe jurisdiction. “In Africa, historically, you’ve had coups, appropriation of assets, and even as recently as last year, what happened in Tanzania with Acacia Mining. Investors want to know they can put in all this capital and recoup their money.”

Did Lawson have a specific sum of money in mind for this particular investment pitch? “Not at this stage,” he says. “But our objective is to raise initially between $3 million and $5 million – that would help optimise all the results we have to date and do more drilling. Later this year, when we start building, we’re aiming to raise about $35 million for the equity component of the capital expenditure, and $40 million from the debt component. So, that’s a total of around $75 million.”

It’s a small amount of money by global mining investment standards – it’s what’s known as a soft landing. He describes the project as unique, calling it a landmark venture that will open doors in Nigeria. The project boasts some 450 000 oz of gold, and of very high grade. In addition, there’s a lot of upside potential.

Lawson’s prize is a free booth at the Mining Indaba next year; three free tickets; and a free hotel room at the 5-star Westin Hotel during the entire event. “This prize gives us exposure. I’m really happy; I’m almost emotional. This project means a lot to me.”

Asked whether he now feels optimistic he’ll be able to raise the $75 million? “I always have to be optimistic – so, yes!”

See also: Fortune favours the brave