"The next big milestone for us is Mongolia, where we have just started producing explosives after opening our subsidiary there in 2019. Second to this will be the construction of a plant in West Africa."
Could you provide an introduction to Titanobel and its international footprint?
Titanobel was established in 1871 as an explosives company and today is the French leader for drilling and blasting services, with around 500 employees. 15 years ago, the international markets represented approximately 10% of the business, this figure is now at 30% and we are on a path of bringing it to up to 40%. West Africa represents between 10 to 13 million euros out of the total global turnover of 25 million euros/year. Together with West Africa, other high-growth territories have been South Africa, New Caledonia, Mongolia and French Guiana. Titanobel works with distributors in countries such as Senegal, Togo, Ghana and Sierra Leone, and we are currently looking for local partners in Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire.
What have been the most recent investments?
Titanobel created blasting and drilling subsidiaries in Senegal and Benin, and we made some external acquisitions of companies such as Enviro Blasting in South Africa. Similarly, we have a subsidiary in Cameroon, and we are looking to make an acquisition in the country to open a local shop.
An important focus of the company has been to multiply the production sites for explosives outside of France, because of the logistical difficulties and high transportation costs. Therefore, we will build two plants by 2021, one in Mongolia and one in New Caledonia. Because logistics are becoming ever more complicated in West Africa, we also plan to open a plant in the region.
What are Titanobel’s latest developments in terms of innovation?
A main focus at the company has been the replacement of ammonium nitrate with an alternative normally used by farmers. We are running the research on this substitution, and we should be able to publish the results in the next few months. Secondly, we continue to develop emulsion substitutes to ultimately replace dynamite with a more stable substance.
How do you see technology uptake in West Africa?
Mining companies operating in West Africa are quite late to the game when it comes to technology adoption. The cost can be prohibitive for some companies, so it will be important to develop these competencies locally. Titanobel employs a number of experienced technicians and engineers, having also started to provide training for local technicians.
How does Titanobel work to ensure consistent safety and quality for its products?
Our philosophy is to ensure the same quality and safety of all of our products. French regulations are amongst the most stringent in the world, and we choose to apply these same rules everywhere else. The same principle stands for our drilling subsidiary in Senegal, South Africa, and New Caledonia; it is an established routine to visit these subsidiaries every year to provide quality control and assistance. The company’s main priority is to avoid injuries, so most of our investment goes into making the workplace and manufacturing processes safe.
How has the pandemic affected the business?
The effect has been different in each country: compared to Mongolia and South Africa where everything was stalled, in West Africa there has effectively not been any impact on revenues, the only significant drawback being the inability to travel. The situation forced us to shift to digital communication platforms and change the way we interact and make decisions. To manage operations from abroad is challenging but, as a plus, our subsidiaries have gained considerable autonomy during this time. The initial panic of the pandemic was mostly around IT equipment and ways to quickly empower each of our employees to work digitally. Teleworking has now become a norm, and we are more prepared to deal with subsequent waves. While we have adapted and managed to embrace the current conditions, relationships with customers are more challenging, and I believe everyone misses the office interaction and the inherent exchange of ideas.
What are the main priorities moving forward?
The next big milestone for us is Mongolia, where we have just started producing explosives after opening our subsidiary there in 2019. Second to this will be the construction of a plant in West Africa. Overall, we are continuing to expand in the international markets, more so now that uncertainty prevails, and it is important to have a widespread presence to buffer potential economic shocks in a given country.