Joe Mtonga grew up on the Copperbelt, where his career in mining began at Copperbelt University. But, a few years later, when he moved to Southern Province to work at Munali Nickel Mine, he developed a sense of belonging that even he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

Then in November 2011, the plant was put on care and maintenance. After a year or so, all but 60 of Munali’s employees had to be laid off. But Mtonga’s passion for the company didn’t die. Almost six years later, news of the mine’s imminent reopening reached Mtonga, and the loyal employee returned. In some ways, it was like coming home.

Read Joe Mtonga’s story.

Tell us how you got into the mining industry.

Well, I studied metallurgy at Copperbelt University. Studying metallurgy is an entry point into mining – it’s the science of minerals, and process metallurgy is one part of metallurgical engineering. It’s concerned with extracting metals from their ores to make refined alloys. There’s physical metallurgy too, which involves the shaping, alloying, and testing of metals.

I started working in Kitwe in 2000, at KCM [Konkola Copper Mines], but my fellow supervisors at Mabiza all have different backgrounds – not necessarily in metallurgy.

You initially worked as Shift Supervisor at Munali Nickel Mine, and are now Head of Metallurgy. What does your job involve?

As Shift Supervisor, my core duties were the safety of both people and machinery. I was in charge of the concentrator, from the stage of ore preparation at ROM Pad [where the ore is stored ahead of the Run-of-Mine Stockpiles, before being crushed], through to the crushers, and the product screening. There were other key performance indicators that were important during day to day operations, like milling, floatation, filtration, and controlling cyclone overflow, to name a few.

Now, my duties and responsibilities are similar, but more technical and more involved because I manage the entire department.

What is “cyclone overflow”, for our readers who aren’t familiar?

There are different types of cyclones. After going to the mill, the product goes to the cyclone feed pump. Smaller particles are forced upwards and ejected into the cyclone overflow. I need to check that it all works as it should.

When did you first start working at Munali?

I started working at Munali in 2010. Then in November 2011, the plant was put on care and maintenance.

[A combination of factors – including the use of an inappropriate geological model and mining method, and a drop in the nickel price – forced Munali to cease operations and maintain the mine with the support of a skeleton staff from November 2011 until April 2019.]

It must have been a difficult time.

Yes, there were about three supervisors sharing all the roles. We did plant clean-ups, and sometimes we were deployed to the R.A.P.

[The Resettlement Action Plan (R.A.P.) is a large-scale, $7.5 million project that involved building homes and community infrastructure for each of the households impacted by the mine’s operations.]

I stayed on for another year or so, and had to leave in December 2012.

[All but 60 of Munali’s employees were retrenched.]

How did you end up back at Munali?

I’ve always had a heart for this plant, for this mine. After I left this place, I was privileged to meet the GM [General Manager, Matthew Banda] in Ndola. By then, Munali was owned by Albidon. We had a chat, and he asked: Would you come back if the mine started working again? I said, “Well, I love Munali, so yes – I would come back. I’ve got a heart for Munali, I’ve got a vision. I want this mine to really excel and pull through from all the troubles that we’ve gone through. One day, I dream of making this mine run perfectly, just like any of the mines on the Copperbelt – or even better than those mines.”

So it seemed like we shared the same vision. He said: “When that time comes, I’ll bring you home.”

And that’s what happened. We started talking around July last year. Then we concluded our discussions, and I came back here and started working on the third of September.

“I’ve always had a heart for Munali. One day, I dream of making this mine run perfectly, just like any of the mines on the Copperbelt.”

The mine was still about seven months from officially reopening, so you were hired relatively early on.  

Yes, I was the first person to start working in my department. There was no one else in the metallurgy section yet.

You talk about having a heart for Munali. Do you have any connection to this part of the country that influenced that?

No. Basically, I’m not from this area. I have a different background: I lived in the Copperbelt until I came here in 2010. I was born in the Copperbelt, in fact. So, this connection isn’t because I come from here. I just developed a heart for this company.

Tell us more.

I think this mine has the potential to reach greater heights. And, for me, the company culture is very important. If you work hard, you are rewarded accordingly.

There’s been a lot of talk about the company over the years – it’s gone through a lot of troubles. And people talk a lot, so I want to prove them wrong. I want to prove that we can really thrive and pull through.

***

After lying dormant under care and maintenance for seven years, Mabiza Resources and its London-based investor, Consolidated Nickel Mines (CNM), re-launched Munali Nickel Mine’s operations on 16 April 2019, following a $50 million refurbishment of the asset. Joe Mtonga was the first to join the new metallurgy department.

See also: Don’t go – it’s just a village!