‘Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.’ This saying fits like a tailor-made garment for Olebogeng Sentsho, CEO of the Simba Mgodi Fund, writes Dineo Phoshoko.
In an interview with Mining Mirror, Sentsho talked about her passion and involvement in the mining industry. She holds a law degree from Wits University, but reluctantly revealed that growing up, she wanted to be an actress.
She ended up as an investment analyst, while a mining project that landed on her desk sparked her interest in the industry. She had never dealt with a project of this nature and had to make several enquiries about how to approach it. “The more I learnt, the more intrigued I became,” she said with enthusiasm. After completing the project, the company she had done the project for was so impressed, they asked her to join their organisation.
How it all started
It was through that company that she started Yeabo Mining, her very first business in the mining industry. With no background in mining, Sentsho was trying to find her feet with her newly formed business. She was advised to go on a site visit as a way of learning more about the industry.
While on site, a huge pile of mine waste caught her attention. After learning that it was of no use to the mine, Sentsho decided that through Yeabo Mining, she was going to clean the mine waste. “We hired some ladies from the local community and we literally — with our hands — picked up those balls and separated them from the box.” The balls were put into heavy-duty bags and sold to scrap metal workshops. “We made R150 000 in four days!”
From that point on, there was no turning back. “The interest grew because you think past the waste pile.” The thought process was around expanding the value chain. As she navigated her way through the industry, new opportunities presented themselves. One of them was the establishment of the Simba Mgodi Fund. As the CEO, Sentsho oversees the origination of deals and serves as the principal deal executive. She also facilitates the movement of investments to clients and assists entrepreneurs to thrive.
A dream come true with many highlights
In 2019, it will be five years since Sentsho has been in the mining industry, and she cannot see herself doing anything outside of the industry. “Mining has transcended a dream. It’s become part of the fabric of my DNA,” she explained.
Since getting involved in the industry, Sentsho has had many memorable encounters. The most recent one was being named as the winner of the Leaders of Tomorrow competition at the 2019 Investing in African Mining Indaba. She explained that she entered the competition feeling confident that she could win. She put a lot of hard work and preparation into her presentation for the competition. “I knew that everything I was doing was leading me up to my one moment in time.”
Sentsho highlighted another memorable encounter with small-scale miners at a chrome mine in Limpopo. “I remember getting to that mountainside and feeling like I could get on my knees, feel the earth, and have a conversation with the people who were literally mining for their daily sustenance. I was so humbled by their effort,” she said. She admired the way small-scale miners found a way to make a living, despite challenging circumstances. “With no infrastructure whatsoever, they are finding a way to feed their families. You have to respect someone who finds a way.” That encounter inspired Sentsho to want to have a positive influence on people’s lives by making them thrive economically.
Working in mining is keeping the bubbly businesswoman very busy. When she has free time, she spends it with her family. The mother of two enjoys cooking, reading, and watching television series. She also does some outreach work.
Challenges and opportunities for women in mining
Historically, mining has been described as a male-dominated industry — a view that Sentsho refutes completely and feels is a big misconception. She believes that a barrier has been created because of this view. “Everywhere I go, I say it’s not male dominated; it’s male populated. So, we need to change the language that we use when we talk about our industry,” she said. By referring to the industry as male dominated, Sentsho feels that the line of thinking is being indoctrinated. “Immediately, you have now told a woman that she can never thrive,” she added.
Another challenge Sentsho found was that women perceive a glass ceiling in the mining industry. “They only ever saw themselves making it to senior management. They never saw themselves at board level or being the owners of mines.” This is unfortunate, considering the potential that women have to add value to the industry. She pointed out that women were the most qualified demographic in the mining sector. “Women hold most of the masters and PhD degrees in mining — black women specifically.”
“Historically, we were always thought of as the disabled gender.” She strongly feels that things have changed radically, presenting many opportunities for women to be successful. “A great deal of my fascination and admiration for the mining industry is that it’s a place for women to thrive.” To achieve this, Sentsho feels it is crucial to make the industry gender neutral by removing “emotive words” such as male dominated. Another suggestion is that women need to take initiative and position themselves strategically to add the most value to the industry.
Exciting times ahead for mining in SA
Over the years, there has been some pessimism regarding the mining industry, particularly in South Africa with the view that the industry is dying. Not only does Sentsho see the opposite, she feels now is an exciting time for mining in the country. “We are at a place in mining where someone has invented a satellite that can identify virgin rock temperature at the bottom of the earth and tell you what’s down there and how much of it is down there.”
She also sees many opportunities, especially with regard to energy storage minerals. Another exciting factor is that the future and the success of the mining industry is not restricted to the extraction of minerals alone. “We’re finding new uses for minerals we thought had reached the end of their life. This is exciting stuff! We are going to hit our super cycle again soon.”
According to Sentsho, South Africa needs to pay more attention to beneficiation as a way of creating jobs in the industry. “Many companies would love to beneficiate, but you can’t beneficiate when you have 5 000 salaries to pay just for extraction. Extraction cannot be a job creator.” She believes that the industry has evolved, with technology making it possible for mechanised and digital mining. In her view, the magic of mining is in beneficiation. She mentioned fuel cell technology as an example of the many opportunities that will come as a result of beneficiation.
Where to from here?
Despite Sentsho’s success in the industry so far, she still finds that because she is a black woman, her credibility is sometimes questioned. “I am still trying to prove myself,” she said. She is not fazed by hurdles such as these, as she has big plans for the future. One of them, which she is currently working on, is establishing and leading a portfolio for women in extractives at the United Nations. She is also pursuing her MSc degree in mining engineering.
As the interview came to an end, Sentsho emphasised that the industry needs more women. “I believe that at this stage, we should be filling the numbers on every board. We should be at the top of every mining company because I believe that women add value.” She believes that the mining industry is not a place for fear, but tenacity. Sentsho’s advice to other women considering mining as a career: “Fear nothing and aim extremely high.”