Interview with Lester Kemp, TM1 COO
Lindsay Chathli speaks to Lester Kemp, Chief Operating Officer at Technology Minerals
‘There’s always going to be some opposition or friction when it comes to exploration and mining…however, it’s about finding mutual common ground’
What happens when a 23-year-old British lad is put in sole charge of a gold exploration camp deep in the Guyanese jungle on his first day in the job? Disaster? Riot? A general strike?
Fortunately, in Lester Kemp’s case, the unexpected responsibility led not to an international incident but the start of an exciting 30-year career of global exploration for precious metals and minerals.
Now Chief Operating Officer at Technology Minerals (TM), Lester has swapped gold and diamonds for equally crucial cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese. He heads TM’s junior mining operations, one half of the twin-track strategy to create the UK’s first circular economy to meet burgeoning demand from the UK and the global electric vehicle (EV) battery sector.
The company currently has six active junior mining projects centred on Europe and the USA. Its Asturmet Project in northern Spain is investigating cobalt, nickel and copper. At Blackbird, Idaho (USA), the primary target is cobalt. In Leinster, Ireland, it’s lithium. Other assets include nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper and rare earth elements.
Lester’s adventurous life and love of geology began early. His father, a Unilever engineer, was stationed variously in Trinidad, Mexico, Brazil and Kenya. “I came back here when I was eighteen, not knowing much about the UK having only spent my holidays here,” he says.
At school in Brazil, he quickly became fluent in Portuguese. Years later, whilst prospecting in the field for diamonds and platinum in Angola during the civil war, locals at first mistook him for a foreign mercenary, then a Russian military instructor. However, when they heard his Portuguese, spoken with a Brazilian accent, it was, ‘Ah, you’re Brazilian’. ‘No, I’m English,’ he replied, confusing them even more. On a serious note, Lester says “It is useful having another language. People really appreciate someone speaking and explaining things in their own tongue - and it’s an excellent way of finding out local knowledge about geology, prospects and other information that helps with exploration.”
Lester’s father taught him to drive in the Nairobi National Park in Kenya at the age of 12, something designed to raise the hackles of health-and-safety conscious parents nowadays. “Life was a real adventure. Looking back, I think my parents were very relaxed about the way we grew up.”
This seems like an understatement. “At my school in Kenya, the outdoor pursuits class was run by a very casual ‘Kenya Cowboy’ with long hair. I recall one trip when we made camp in the middle of the Aberdare National Park – an area 767km east ofthe Rift Valley. When we woke up the next morning and climbed out of our tents,our teacher was missing. He’d left us a note with some coordinates, telling usto track across the park to where he’d set up the next camp. It was ridiculous,we were only teenagers. There were lion footprints outside our tent, snakes(puff adders) and all sorts of other animals around us. Fortunately, we allmade it in one piece albeit with someone missing a boot.”
Undeterred by the experience, the great outdoors remains one of Lester’s passions as well as a necessity of the job. The fascination with geology also came abroad. In Brazil, a jeweller friend of his parents allowed Lester, then aged six, privileged access to his collection of mineral specimens, fuelling his love and fascination with rocks and minerals.
Eventually, back in the UK, Lester completed his Bachelor’s Degree at Portsmouth, followed by a Masters Degree at the Royal School of Mines (Imperial College, University of London). His first job was with GeoScience Limited in Ascot, working on the UK Nirex’s nuclear repository program. Later, he answered an advert for a Project Geologist in Guyana.
“I arrived in Georgetown and was met by the Chief Geologist, a Canadian, late in the evening,” he says.“The next morning, at breakfast he said ‘Right, I’m off on my holidays for three weeks, so you’re in charge. This is our concession (showing me a map), and you need to build a camp in there somewhere’. He left me with the maps and said, ‘You’ll need to buy a couple of boats, engines for them, generators for the camp, tents, recruit workers etc. When I get back, we need to be up and running, line-cutting through the jungle and collecting samples.’”
Lester’s first thought was: “When’s the next plane back?” Despite that, he stayed. It turned out to be a formative experience.
“It was quite daunting at that age, but it was a great experience. I was in charge of 21 Amerindians, who were amazing guys with a detailed knowledge of operating in the jungle. They seemed to have a sixth sense, walking along narrow tracks through the jungle spotting snakes well before I saw them.” He says the experience gave him a lot of confidence.
After the project finished, he worked for various junior resource companies with projects in Africa. Later when the Bre-X mining scandal hit (decimating the junior mining sector), he joined Roche Pharmaceuticals as a project manager running HIV and Hepatitis C trials in the UK. When the mining industry eventually recovered from the Bre-X scandal, Lester decided to work for himself, and founded a number of private junior resource companies focusing on diamonds and copper / gold.
It was while considering taking one company to AIM that he first met Alex Stanbury (TM’s Chief Executive) who was then working for a corporate finance house. After a 10-year gap, Lester bumped into Alex on the streets in Mayfair, who was running Century Cobalt Corporation, the predecessor to Technology Minerals Plc, and Lester began to help Alex with Century Cobalt. A milestone event came about a couple of years later when they attended a Battery Conference in Birmingham, where one of the presentations was on recycling batteries.
This was to be a key moment in the company’s history. Both Lester and Alex thought a battery recycling side to the business would ‘close the circle’, and so the idea for the circular economy in the critical battery metals sector was born. In November 2021, Technology Minerals Plc became the first UK-listed company creating a sustainable circular economy - a solution to the environmental problems of fossil fuels and ensuring a sufficient supply of materials to enable a successful transition to EVs.
On the exploration side, TM does what Lester describes as ‘project generation’. This entails identifying and appraising assets to create early-stage value for further development by others. Lester praises the technical expertise of the teams TM work with, including outside consultants such as Aurum Exploration, who are based out of Ireland. Project generation requires rigorous discipline, he says, including dropping an asset if it’s not looking good. “Don’t make the mistake of falling in love with a project,” he says.
TM’s projects are predominantly (and deliberately) in Europe and the USA, close to market and infrastructure. These countries are also robustly governed by the rule of law with established regulations for land use and exploration. Even so, Lester stresses how important it is to engage with local stakeholders. In Spain, for example, the company has long-standing relationships with the local Government who have been very supportive of the company’s work, which is critical to the project’s success.
Mining itself is a fascinating industry, he says, and very reactive. “Companies could be involved with gold one day, the next day they’re experts on lithium.”
But there are also complexities. He readily admits mining has a bad name. People have this stereotypical view of mining as a bad industry, which is a real shame.
For this reason, ESG and an ethical approach is important. In the past, companies often paid little more than lip-service, he explains. “Now investors want to be able to invest in ethical companies. Within five years, I doubt you’d be able to raise money fora company unless it’s ESG compliant, and that’s not just about policy statements – you need to have a real verifiable track record, and quite rightly so.”
There is, he says, at a local level, always going to be some friction or opposition. It’s not just in the mining sector but any project where land is involved – building houses, for instance – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s about finding some mutual common ground and having a win-win for both sides.”
The bottom line, however, is mining is an essential activity. “You cannot supply all the metals you need by recycling. As long as people want electric vehicles and phones, you have to mine. That’s where sustainable mining comes in.”
So, can mining co-exist with stakeholders? Absolutely. “As long as you do the best to minimise the impact and involve all stakeholders.”
And, on the issue of ethics, is there any country TM would not work with?
“The driving force in selecting where to work is security of tenure, appropriate mining legislation within a jurisdiction and of course prospective geology,” he says. “A friend of mine recently put it this way… if you wouldn’t want to take your wife and family there, don’t operate there!”
Another big issue for the industry is the current state of geopolitics. The UK itself has a growing EV and Gigafactory sector, both of which require a steady supply of raw materials. Elon Musk has famously talked about buying up a nickel mining company to secure supply for Tesla’s operations.
“China’s dominance in the rare earth market, and the Russian-Ukrainian war has highlighted the need for countries to look internally at their own resources and move away from relying on external supply lines that may be affected by war and politics if they are to protect their own growing battery and EV sectors,” Lester says.
One way to mitigate danger to supply is for such countries to review policies, such as speeding up licences, Lester suggests. Even the UK has resources, too small to interest big mining companies, maybe, but realisable with government support and funding.
“At the moment, there is plenty more to be discovered.”
One project of particular interest at the moment is Spain. The St. Patrick licence (which contains the historic Aramo Mine) celebrates its 3-year anniversary, with other licences in the area due to be granted soon. In January this year, Lester and Alex Stanbury climbed 1000m to the Aramo plateau to see the surface mineral alteration before going underground to see the historic mine workings. “We had a geologist with us from a large mining company, and he was bowled over by what he saw. The project has huge potential and later in the year we plan to carry out more exploration and drilling – both surface and underground.”
Going underground for Lester is a rare experience. “I’m slightly claustrophobic,” he confesses with a grin, “but it’s all about mind over matter. We are planning an underground LIDAR survey very soon which will scan and map the workings using point cloud reference. When completed, we’ll be able to add geology, structure, grades, alteration all in 3D and build the geological model for the Aramo deposit.”
“I think the next twelve months are going to be really exciting watching this project grow,” he says.
When not working, Lester’s pastimes include trekking and being outdoors. He owns up to going out with a metal-detector, on occasions, “hoping to find a treasure trove”.
Has he found it yet? “No,” he jokes, “that’s why I’m still working for Technology Minerals! But it’s an engaging hobby. Nothing beats the romanticism of prospecting.”
Perhaps the job is the treasure trove? Anyway, his hobbies have a lot in common with his work.
“I meet people who have nine-to-five office jobs. Some love it, some hate it. I’m lucky to love my job.It combines a lot of my interests. When my children were younger, they used to ask me how my holiday was when I came back from an overseas field visit!”
Lester is passionate about helping the next generation of Geoscientists and set up a LinkedIn Group called the Graduate Mining Advice Group. “I set it up a couple of years ago and now have 844 members. It’s something I’m quite proud of and I’m looking forward to when we reach 1,000.”