Creating the right environment

Providing its services to a wide selection of resource players across and beyond the African continent is no mean feat, but is a challenge South African consultancy firm Digby Wells Environmental is tackling with aplomb.

South African-based consultants Digby Wells Environmental came into existence in the early 1990s, during a time when the mining sector and a plethora of other industries were adapting to changing economic and social conditions.

Today, its international expertise in delivering environmental and social solutions for its clients from the mineral resources and mining industry, has led to it becoming one of the country’s most sort-after specialist consultancies.

Despite having its eyes focused primarily on the African market, Digby Wells has extensive experience from counties in markets as diverse as the Americas, Europe, the CIS countries and Asia.

“We’ve got 150 active projects at any one point in time, which you can broadly categorise into two groups,” explains director Andries Wilke. “The first covers our domestic clients who account for roughly half our turnover, and the other is for international clients.

“If you look at our competition in South Africa, and probably in West Africa as well, we are one of the few companies that specialises in mining.

“Being a purely environmental company gives us a different approach to the studies we do and the approached we take with that, and we believe that’s a competitive advantage as well,” he remarks.

Formed from a giant

The firm was established when a number of large South African mining companies were unbundled.

“In the early 1990s, Rand Mines was one of the three largest mining houses in the world, but when it was unbundled its environmental department had an option either to go with one of the divisions that were being sold off to various parties, merged into another engineering companies, or go out on its own,” Wilke explains.

“Digby Wells was then formed by former department employees and as it came out of the mining industry it was natural that its first clientele was predominantly mining companies.”

The company grew slowly in the early stages, but in the past five years has grown much more quickly.

“We’ve expanded from a workforce of about 12 people 10 years ago to about 80 staff members currently and the reason for this expansion has mainly been the due to the fact we service our clients with the specialist capabilities required for inter-growth environmental and social studies,” says Wilke.

In the domestic market the firm’s main focus is on coal, but it also works on a range of other commodities such as phosphate.

“We actively pursue certain clients, but the bulk of our current new clients coming in are coming either through referrals, or through our key clients or key contacts we have from previous companies who recommend us for work with those clients as such,” Wilke notes.

Crossing the border

Outside of the African continent the company is currently involved with projects in Armenia and Kazakhstan and has recently carried out work on Chile’s copper fields.

“Our company’s main focus is squarely on Africa, but if we get requests for work to be done in other parts of the world we’d definitely do that,” says Wilke.

“We’ve actually covered most of the continents, although we haven’t done any active work in Australia yet, nor Antarctica.”

Back on its home continent Digby Wells has worked extensively in West Africa’s gold mining sector.

“We also work on other commodity projects across Africa and are currently active in iron ore in Guinea and Nigeria, as well as diamond work in Sierra Leone and gold in the Ivory Coast,” notes Wilke.

The firm is building a presence in Mali and has entered into a joint venture partnership in Senegal, as it looks to expand further into Francophone West Africa.

“It’s an important time in West Africa and we’re setting up offices in Ghana, which has already been registered and has started to function,” says Wilke. “We are first and foremost a specialist on the African continent and we’ve probably got a strong advantage there compared with our competitors, and we view ourselves as having an advantage in developing economies.”

A youthful approach

Despite the difficulties of working in a tough financial climate, Wilke says Digby Wells has found itself in a lucky position as it continues to grow thanks to its focus on a broad range of commodities, and its talented workforce spread across the African continent.

“The company has grown a fair amount of experience organically, as clients require additional services or where we’ve expanded a team by appointing specialists with experience,” he notes.

When compared to traditional consultancies in North America and Europe, Digby Wells has in place a relatively young, but energetic workforce, with the median age of employees at the firm 31.

“We work hard to bring the right people in, and we do bring in a number of postgraduate students as interns, of whom a number stay with the company,” says Wilke.

“Furthermore we recruit from our competitors when the opportunity arises and a number of our competitors in South Africa have had to reduce staff numbers, so we used that opportunity to actually pick up key experts in certain fields.”

With a skilled, professional and energetic workforce in place at sites across Africa and beyond, and with broad commodity spread covered by its expert, it’s no surprise that this South African company is receiving enquiries from companies across the globe.