Yves KABONGO, FOUNDER AND CEO OF NOVCORP – An inspiring journey for young Congolese

“To become the first Congolese in his thirties to be floated on the stock market.

M&B met Yves Kabongo, a young entrepreneur in the 3T sector (tin, tungsten, tantalum). Founder of Novcorp, a company specialising in 3T trading, he also sits on the board of Tantalex Lithium Resources, a listed company. In a fascinating interview, he shares his vision with us.

Hello Yves. Can you tell us about your childhood?

Born in Kinshasa in January 1988, I am the son of Michel Kabongo and Berthe Mulunda, former executives at Ogefrem and COFED respectively. I grew up in Kinshasa in the neighbourhood formerly known as IPN, now UPN, in the commune of Ngaliema, in a family of 5 children, including 2 brothers and 2 sisters. My parents always instilled strong Christian values in me. I’m married and the father of two beautiful daughters.

What was your childhood like?

My mother remembers that I was always outside. I loved basketball and was fascinated by the determination of the players. At the age of 12, during the holidays, I started my first business selling sweets and biscuits outside my house. That was my first step into trading! In 2005, I decided to continue my university studies in Canada, in Toronto.

How did you cope with the shock of expatriation?

Moving from Kinshasa to an English-speaking country like Canada was a real shock for me. The culture and the language were my first challenges. It was a difficult transition, but Toronto became the city that has shaped my career and my personality to this day. I’ve always had a passion for numbers, which is why I chose to study Mathematics for Commerce at York University.

What brought you into the professional world?

My entry into the professional world was marked by my arrival in Canada, where I found a job as a student in telemarketing. This experience enabled me to develop essential skills in communication, persuasion and customer relationship management. However, it was at McKenzie Investments, an investment fund where I worked from 2010 to 2012, that I really immersed myself in the world of finance. At this renowned company, I had the opportunity to learn the importance of investment diversification, performance management and portfolio evolution. The years I spent at McKenzie Investments were crucial to my professional development and reinforced my passion for the financial sector.

What about the mining industry?

The mining industry has always held a fascination for me, not least because of my cousin who worked in South Africa. His accounts of his travels between Johannesburg and Kinshasa, his immersion in the mining sector and his lifestyle deeply inspired me. I have always admired his career and dreamed of following in his footsteps.

This fascination was strengthened when I had the opportunity to meet the Hooper family in Toronto, thanks to my father. My father, one of the founders of KiloGold Mines, opened the doors of his world to me and gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the mining industry. This meeting was decisive in my career choices, as it confirmed my desire to work in this exciting and dynamic sector. The relationship I formed with the Hooper family was a source of inspiration and motivation for me, and played a key role in my decision to enter the mining industry.

When did it all start to happen?

It all started in 2012, when I made the bold decision to leave McKenzie Investments and enter the mining sector. That’s when I contacted Charles Hooper to express my desire to join this field and to ask for his help. Thanks to an opportunity offered by one of his brothers, I started out as a concession research analyst for an exploration project in Canada.

My role was to analyse thousands of technical reports from gold companies, identify promising projects and assess their potential. Spending hours in front of an Excel sheet, I developed my skills in data analysis, research and evaluation of mining projects. That’s how we discovered an old gold mine dating back to the 1900s-1920s in Nova Scotia, opening up exciting new opportunities in the mining sector.

The start of a new adventure?

Yes, and that adventure was to set up a company, get the licence and raise the funds to start an exploration project. Although I wasn’t trained as a geologist, I put a lot of time and effort into understanding the technical reports and working with experts in the field.

We managed to raise our first $300,000 to launch an exploration project, obtain the mining concession and start drilling to bring the mine back into production. It was a huge challenge, but our determination and expertise paid off.

When the price of gold plummeted in April 2014, I was faced with a new challenge. That’s when my brother advised me to look into the 3Ts: tin, coltan and tungsten. This advice was decisive in my decision to diversify our activities and explore new opportunities in the mining sector.

What was your strategy?

Our strategy was to change direction and focus on trading to generate immediate income, rather than continuing to raise funds for exploration projects. We wanted to show investors that we could invest in profitable projects and generate dividends quickly. So we decided to go into commodities trading.

After preparing a detailed report on our project, we contacted the father of one of our partners, who put us in touch with a friend of his in Toronto. Thanks to our convincing presentations, we managed to raise half a million dollars to launch Belair African Metals Sarl, a commodities trading company in the DRC specialising in 3T trading.

In 2017, Belair African Metals was sold to listed company Cobalt Blockchain Inc, and I was given the opportunity to run its DRC subsidiary until December 2020. This experience was a real success and demonstrated our ability to seize opportunities and turn our ideas into concrete successes in the mining sector.

For the uninitiated, how do you raise $500,000?

Fundraising is a complex process that involves opening up your company’s capital to potential investors. It’s an art that I learnt from the Hooper family, who have experience of listed companies.

It’s crucial to be well prepared and to present your project convincingly.

In my case, we started by introducing ourselves to the father of one of our partners, who then put us in touch with people in his network. We opened the capital of Belair African Metals Canada, our first start-up, following a similar process to the one I also followed for NOVCORP.

To sum up, to raise funds successfully, it’s essential to have a clear vision of your project. You also need to surround yourself with competent people, ensure regulatory compliance and know how to present your company in an attractive way to potential investors.

What happened next?

3 years later, BelAir African Metals decided to go public via RTO (Reverse Take Over) and I was appointed Managing Director in the DRC. In line with market needs, the project refocused on copper, artisanal cobalt and supply chain traceability via blockchain. 

Has it worked?

Unfortunately, the initial project did not come to fruition as planned, because we were ahead of the market realities at the time. In 2019, after trying to change the model and restructure the company, I took the decision to go it alone. That’s how I founded NOVCORP. November has always represented a new beginning for me, symbolised by my arrival in Canada on 7 November 2005. Novcorp marked a new chapter in my entrepreneurial career. Despite past setbacks, I was able to bounce back and seize new opportunities to continue moving forward in the mining sector. This experience taught me the importance of adaptability, resilience and perseverance in the world of entrepreneurship. Every failure is a lesson that allows us to grow and improve for future challenges. I am grateful for this opportunity to bounce back and continue to pursue my ambitions in the mining sector.

So you’re almost starting from scratch?

Yes, after deciding to set up my own business and return to 3T, I drew up a solid business plan and contacted John Wright, who is now Vice President of NOVCORP, to tell him about my project. Together we managed to raise $250,000 during a pitch to a group of investors in Toronto. This initial funding enabled us to launch NOVCORP Canada, which now owns 100% of NOVCORP RDC.

My long-term vision was to take NOVCORP public, taking into account the potential of the mining sector in Toronto, home to the world’s largest mining exchange. I followed the same approach as for Bel Air, setting up a traceability system, joining ITSCI and working to obtain my Category B entity licence. Despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, I managed to launch NOVCORP’s operations at the end of 2020.

Starting almost from scratch, I was able to bounce back and turn obstacles into opportunities to realise my ambitions in the mining sector. I’m grateful for the support of my team and the investors who believed in our project and enabled us to achieve our goals.

Did you get your licence quickly?

No, my application for a Category A processing entity licence followed the normal process, which took 6 months. I obtained my licence in August 2020. As for my ITSCI membership, that took 10 months. ITSCI is compulsory in 3T trading. As soon as I obtained both, I immediately launched operations in Maniema.

Despite the hassles, did you still believe in it?

Yes, despite all the hassles I had to deal with, I always believed in my objective. I had a clear vision of where I wanted to go. I knew there would be challenges along the way, but I was determined to tackle them, whether at operational or other levels. My advice to young people is to cultivate that same determination. The DRC, although imperfect, has enormous potential for young people. It is essential to have this determination and to face obstacles with courage and perseverance in order to realise your aspirations.

You are an operator, but imagine you had the opportunity to advise the President of the Republic. What would be the first decisions to be taken by the profession?

If I had the opportunity to advise the President of the Republic as an operator, my first recommendation would be to prioritise road construction. The main challenge we face is logistical, due to the lack of road infrastructure. For example, Maniema is completely landlocked, and currently the only means of transport linking Kindu to Kalémie is by train, but the situation with the SNCC is not encouraging. Building roads is crucial to the economic and social development of our provinces, because without good road infrastructure, progress will be hampered.

Which logisticians do you work with?

As far as logistics are concerned, in Maniema I work mainly with SNCC because of logistical constraints. We are now forced to use air transport to link Kindu to Goma, which entails additional costs. However, this method allows us to ensure faster rotations, thus avoiding the delivery delays that can occur with SNCC. To transport goods from Manono to Lubumbashi, we use local private transporters. This collaboration enables us to transport our goods efficiently while optimising costs and guaranteeing satisfactory delivery times.

Tell us about your access to finance

As far as our access to banks is concerned, I initiated my first fund-raising in Canada, with the support of my Canadian network, to launch our operations. In 2021, I felt the need to raise more finance, because our business model is very cash-focused. Our business involves buying, processing and exporting products, so we need a lot of cash to keep our operations running smoothly.

So no access to banks in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Yes, access to banks in the DRC is a major challenge for entrepreneurs. Despite the financial flows generated, I’ve found it difficult to get support from local banks. In the first year, I achieved sales of 6 million dollars, but the banks were not very receptive to my financing needs. It wasn’t until 2022 that I was able to benefit from Equity’s support to develop my operations, after waiting a year and a half. Without this international financing experience, it would have been difficult for me to launch my activities. This highlights a real challenge for entrepreneurs in the DRC in terms of access to local finance.

What are your next investments?

We’re going to focus on the processing unit. Despite high grades, we need to semi-mechanise our tin and coltan processing operations in Lubumbashi and Maniema.

What guarantees do you give your customers in terms of the ethics of the cooperatives that supply you?

As far as the ethics of the cooperatives that supply us are concerned, we put in place rigorous supervision in the field. With 10 years’ experience in the artisanal sector, I am an ardent defender of artisanal mining. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, this sector employs around 2 million miners. I am convinced that if the sector were better organised, it could create 2 million more jobs. It is therefore essential to formalise this sector.

As a processing entity, we provide financial, organisational and technical support to the cooperatives we work with to ensure that they adhere to strict ethical standards. We ensure that cooperatives do not tolerate child labour or the presence of (pregnant) women on mine sites. As a member of the ITSCI, we are committed to following up and doing due diligence on internal audits, ensuring that all mining activities meet traceability standards and come from non-conflict areas authorised by the ITSCI.

A bit like the Entreprise Générale du Cobalt?

The EGC project is a very promising initiative. Without getting into the political aspects, it’s clear that this project is targeting artisanal mining and cobalt, which accounts for 20% of world production. Given that the Democratic Republic of Congo is a benchmark for cobalt, I’m convinced that the EGC project has the potential to become a showcase for the country’s artisanal cobalt, just like the vision I had with Cobalt Blockchain. It is essential to support and promote initiatives such as EGC that aim to enhance and develop the Congolese artisanal mining sector.

What can NOVCORP bring in terms of inspiration for the country?

NOVCORP, as a Congolese company, has the potential to bring significant inspiration to the country. My vision for NOVCORP is to take it international, which is why I took the decision to float the company on the stock market. The Reverse Takeover (RTO) agreement has been signed and we are currently carrying out audits on the last three operational years to finalise the IPO. This move will enable me to add tangible value to my operations, by capitalising the company, while accessing greater funding for my mining business. My long-term goal is to acquire mining concessions, develop them and build a mine, thereby contributing to the economic development and growth of the Congolese mining sector.

Still in the 3T field?

Yes, I firmly believe that the Democratic Republic of Congo has enormous potential when it comes to the 3Ts (tin, tantalum and tungsten). At the moment, the only company exploiting these minerals at an industrial level is Alphamin. My vision is to follow this path by entering the stock markets to raise significant funds. These funds will be essential to develop the mines and increase production of these strategic minerals, thereby contributing to the country’s economic development and the growth of the Congolese mining sector.

Do you think that NOVCORP, with its IPO, can raise $100 million?

Yes, I’m convinced that NOVCOP, with its IPO, has the potential to raise 100 million dollars. That’s my vision and my goal. I’m not limiting myself to trading, but I’m aiming to build a mining project and develop a mine. I firmly believe in my ability to achieve this ambition and to become the first Congolese in his thirties to go public. I started by generating cash flow to demonstrate that a company can grow its operations through trading, with a view to acquiring mining concessions. So I’m not relying solely on the stock market to raise funds for exploration projects, but I’m diversifying my sources of financing to ensure NOVCORP’s success.

Any last words?

I wanted to share my experience because it’s not easy to be an entrepreneur in the DRC. I want to be useful to my country, and I firmly believe that with determination, hard work and faith in God we can achieve our goals. I hope to be an inspiration to young people and show that every son of the country can make a difference and contribute to the development of our country. Thank you for this opportunity to share my story and my aspirations.

An exclusive interview conducted in Lubumbashi by M&B Magazine – May 2024

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