If you thought that a degree from university is all it takes to make a success in mining, think again. Sylvester Mwape, a chemical engineer at FQM’s Kansanshi Mine, says mining is a tough, demanding environment.

How important is academic learning in mining?

You know, I’ve learned over the years that academic excellence is not proportional to your professional performance. In mining, it’s not enough to be academically intelligent. I’ve seen lots of really clever people struggle in this industry. You need other attributes. You need the right personality, the right attitude. Mining is very dynamic, very energetic, very physical, very analytical. It’s not just about your qualification.

What’s it like working for FQM?

You have a lot of freedom. There’s no bureaucracy here. You excel on your own terms. They’re not big on hierarchy. I can walk straight into the GM’s office and propose an idea. It’s an open-door policy. It’s easy for ideas to sail through and be heard in a short period of time. I have heard that this is not always the case at other mines.

Have you had any ideas accepted?

Yes – several. There are times when you miscalculate. But you learn from your mistakes.

Did you always want to be a chemical engineer?

My father is an electrical engineer, so that’s what I thought I’d become too. But as I grew up, I discovered my true self and realised my passion was actually chemical engineering.

Was mining your first career choice?

Actually, while studying at Copperbelt University, my passion at that time was to work in nuclear energy!

But Zambia doesn’t have a nuclear industry…

True. But at that stage of your life, you dream big. You dream beyond borders! I thought I might work outside the country. But I matured. I told myself – look, ultimately, you’re an engineer. And as an engineer, you can do anything.

So, mining seemed a natural career outlet?

Yes. I got an opportunity to work in metallurgy at FQM’s Bwana Mkubwa mine in Ndola in 2006. I found it very, very interesting. In terms of the fundamentals, it was similar to chemical engineering. So, I didn’t really struggle to find my feet.

You sound like someone who sailed through his studying. Did you graduate top of your class?

No. I graduated with a Merit. Back in those days, the curriculum was tough. Getting a Distinction would have meant you were a super-genius!

There’s no bureaucracy here at Kansanshi; you excel on your own terms

How challenging is your job at Kansanshi?

There are days when nothing seems to work. Everything you touch just goes wrong. As a company, we’re very strict about KPIs [Key Performance Indicators]. You can’t afford to lose production. You can’t afford to cause other sections not to meet their KPIs. So, you just try your best to keep the plant running. It can be very frustrating.

And when it all goes right?

Ah, those days are the most rewarding! All the lights are green. I’m happy; my manager is happy; the whole team is happy. But those days don’t come very often – and they come with effort.

How has your life changed since you started working in mining?

I’ve matured, both professionally and in life. When I joined, my chin was bare! Today I’m an adult, I’m a father, I’m a husband and I’m a manager.

How has Solwezi changed since you first got here?

Back in 2007, you’d fly into Solwezi and it was mostly bush. There were no amenities, no social life. There was very little you could buy. Every weekend, people used to drive to the Copperbelt to do their shopping. The road was bad. It was risky. People died. But today, Solwezi has shopping malls, support services, social amenities, proper houses for mine employees. Mining has transformed Solwezi.

What are some of the countries you’ve travelled to?

I’ve been to South Africa with my family. We’ve also been to Madagascar, Australia, Italy. And I’ve also travelled a lot in my work.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this job?

It wouldn’t be very different from what I’m doing now. Perhaps I’d work as a mining engineer. You know, the education you get in engineering gives you a broad base to build on. The base is very strong – ultimately, engineering is engineering.

See also: Kansanshi at a crossroads