Mumbai: Sachin Bajla loves luxury cars. He uses a Bentley on the weekends and a brand new Audi 6 to shuttle between his home and office in suburban Mumbai. But for his business trips to war-torn Africa, his options are limited.
Positive outlook: Dharni Sampada’s Sachin Bajla expects the company’s net profit to rise to Rs100 crore in the current year and to Rs500 crore by March 2012, riding on exports of tantalite and uranium. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
That’s why he’s ordered two planes—a $12-15 million (Rs56-70 crore) Learjet to halve the flying time between Mumbai and Ivory Coast and a $2.9 million eight-seater Cessna Caravan to hop among his various mines in Africa. The conflict-ridden Ivory Coast, officially known as Côte d’Ivoire, may not be the world’s most popular business destination but for those who don’t mind dodging bullets, there are rich pickings to be made.
“I love to tread where others fear,” says Bajla, 38, who dropped out from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management in Mumbai. “This is a lethal business and a bullet can hit you at any time,” he says; his cousin took one in rebel firing in Ivory Coast. “I don’t take chances,” says Bajla, who charters planes to reach his mines and hires security guards from government military forces.
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Bajla’s Dharni Sampada Ltd owns four manganese mines in Ivory Coast, six blocks of uranium mines across 3,000 sq. km in Niger and two tantalite mines in Sierra Leone, another conflict-ridden country.
Twelve years ago, Bajla was making belt buckles in a shanty in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums. Today, he’s setting up a 25,000 sq. ft office that he purchased last year for Rs45 crore to seat 900 of his 1,300 employees in India.
The minerals he produces are in demand. Manganese purifies iron ore in blast furnaces, uranium powers nuclear plants and tantalite is used to make capacitors in mobile phones.
Bajla, whose idols are Reliance Industries Ltd founder Dhirubhai Ambani and Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Resources Plc, gambled by betting on Africa.
“The risks we took in hostile countries are slowly paying off,” said Bajla, who runs an average of 9-10km a day and plays squash for an hour when he is in Mumbai. His working methods are similarly intense.
The Niger government awarded him six blocks in 2006 although he had submitted his bid after the deadline expired. Rivals Rio Tinto and Areva had to be content with two blocks.
“It was our sheer perseverance and social commitment” that swung the deal, says Bajla. He offered the Niger government 30% of the profit, jobs for locals and committed to green part of the desert.
The Niger survey has found uranium in 40 sq. km after exploring a 1,000 sq. km area. He still has another 2,000 sq. km to cover. Bajla wants to start producing the yellow cake by January 2011 for international markets as countries shift to nuclear power from coal-based power plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has estimated an increase in global electricity generation from 372 gigawatt (GW) to 511GW, which may peak at 807GW by 2030. The agency said in September that the rise in the cost of natural gas and coal, coupled with the pursuit of energy supply security and environmental constraints, will spur growth in nuclear power.
Commitments by governments, utilities and equipment vendors to expand nuclear capacity and the end of nuclear trade restrictions with India are other factors that will trigger growth, it said.
Bajla’s earliest bet is running manganese mines in Ivory Coast. Alongside this, he wants to set up a manganese ferro alloy plant and a coal-based power utility. These two projects will drive the company’s future cash flows, with the proximity to the mine allowing him to earn a margin 14 times what others make, he says.
“When my rivals will make Rs2,000 profit for every tonne of manganese sold, our profit will be Rs28,000 from the same quantity sold as the plant is nearer to the mine,” Bajla says.
His biggest validation came in 2007, when Emirates Trading Co., or ETA, one of the largest trading companies in West Asia, lent Rs22 crore against a future stakeholding. More than the money, Dharni found a ready customer for manganese ore in the ETA ferro alloy plant in Bahrain.
Dharni’s revenue has jumped to Rs70 crore in the year ended March from Rs4 crore a year earlier, while net profit has surged to Rs28 crore from Rs2 crore, with debt amounting to Rs30 crore.
Bajla expects the firm’s net profit to rise to Rs100 crore in the current year and to Rs500 crore by March 2012, riding on exports of tantalite and uranium. He also expects that by next year two more manganese mines will be ready to dig out.
State-owned Manganese Ore (India) Ltd (Moil), India’s largest producer of the mineral, produces 1 million tonne (mt) of manganese ore from its reserve of 50mt. Dharni has a reserves of 25mt in Ivory Coast.
Of its 1mt, Moil sells 0.25mt of high-grade manganese ore and the rest is low grade. Steel makers either use high-grade ore or ferro alloy (purified low-grade manganese ore) to mix with iron ore and other minerals to make steel. Nearly 35kg of ferro alloy is required to make a tonne of steel and the total requirement to feed all the steel units in India is 2.5-3mt. Moil and NMDC Ltd, another state-owned firm, supply 1.5mt and steel makers import the rest.
Bajla likes to benchmark his company against Moil, which was valued at Rs7,000 crore by consultancy Ernst and Young during the government’s disinvestment programme in 2000. Dharni, which matches Moil’s capacity in superior-grade manganese ore, with 0.25mt, wants to double it by February 2010.
The Ivory Coast government takes a 10% cut of the profit, in addition to 6% loyalty fee on exports. Bajla has set a production target of 1mt by 2010, with 0.5mt of superior grade and the rest of ferro alloy.
The tantalite mines are held under its subsidiary Taurian Siera Leone Pvt. Ltd. Bajla has already mined and packed 100kg of the metal, which costs $100 a kg. Bajla, who says he is not in a hurry, is in negotiations with buyers.
Like Agarwal’s Vedanta Resources that’s listed in London, Bajla wants to create a holding company in Singapore for his mineral business.
“We are awaiting clarification on the tax structure,” he says. Before he sets up his holding company in Singapore, Bajla may offer 1% of his stake in Dharni to ETA Trading, valuing the company at Rs2,200 crore.