Just days into his post-political career, former Quebec premier Jean Charest took on one of his first and toughest assignments: flying into Senegal to negotiate a complex deal for a Canadian mining company, even as war was raging in neighbouring Mali.
It was a good introduction to the risks and rewards of Africa's mining industry, and it helped preserve a $500-million gold project. A year later, Mr. Charest is increasingly bullish on African business, attending investment conferences in Abidjan and Cape Town over the past few days.
Some investors might be less keen on the risky African frontier, especially after a gloomy year globally for the mining industry in 2013, and the launch of a damaging strike by 70,000 platinum workers in South Africa last month.
The platinum strike continued on Monday as investors gathered for the Mining Indaba, the biggest annual African mining conference. But people such as Mr. Charest were looking beyond the labour unrest and seeing huge potential across the continent.
"The Africa question is certainly on the minds of a lot of Canadian mining companies," said Mr. Charest, who is handing out his business card as a partner at Bay Street law firm McCarthy Tétrault these days.
"Africa is perceived as a continent with a lot of opportunities, and it's opening up," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba.
"More than ever before, they see more of the opportunities than the risks. For Canadian companies, if they're not in Africa, they're probably asking themselves, 'are we missing something, should we not be there, and where are the best places to go?'"
West Africa, rather than strike-plagued South Africa, is the favourite target for Canadian miners.
"If you look at West Africa, there have been no strikes, and you have all the Canadian companies operating there," said Benoit La Salle, chairman of the Canadian Council on Africa and a 20-year veteran of African mining.
"You have people who want to work, you can sign a two-year or three-year labour agreement, you can get permits fairly quickly, and it's completely under-explored."
Canadian mining companies, with their large numbers of bilingual employees, are well-positioned to work in the francophone countries of West Africa. Countries such as Senegal are "completely untapped," said Andrew Bradbury, manager of corporate development at Toronto-based Teranga Gold Corp., which owns the $500-million mine in Senegal – the only modern gold mine in the country.
Investor interest is growing. Compared to last year, the Canadian Council on Africa has twice as many members attending the Mining Indaba this year, Mr. La Salle said. "I know people who are here this year for the first time. They used to work in Canada, and now they want to work in Africa, because this is where it's happening. We've been telling people, and now they're starting to come in."
Canada was among the three biggest sources of acquisition deals in the African mining sector last year, according to a report by Ernst & Young released on Monday.
Coups and wars are still an occasional threat in West Africa, but most companies are undeterred. Sama Resources Inc., based in Montreal, has invested $14-million in exploration in Ivory Coast since 2009, even during the peak of military clashes in 2010 and 2011 that wreaked havoc on the country. Two Canadian-owned gold mines have also begun production in Ivory Coast.
"We're probably the only company that didn't shut for a single day during the crisis," said Marc-Antoine Audet, president of Sama Resources. "We drilled every day in the worst of the crisis."
On average, mining explorers are spending less than $5 per square kilometre in Africa, compared to $65 per square kilometre in Canada, Australia and Latin America, according to South African Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.
"The mineral development potential of the African continent is unparalleled," she told the Mining Indaba. "Africa remains grossly underexplored for its mineral potential."