Growing up in Zimbabwe after World War II, completing an engineering degree at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, and working at Jones & Wagener, a specialist firm of consulting engineers and scientists based in South Africa, laid the groundwork for Simon Houlding’s world view and his passion for education.
As a consultant to companies in South Africa such as Impala Plats (now Implats), Anglo American (NASDAQ: AAUK; LSE: AAL), and Iscor, now Mittal Steel South Africa, the young engineer realized early in his career that Africa was a continent hungry for education and skills across all industries, but particularly in his adopted industry of mining.
After founding Lynx Geosystems Inc., where he pioneered spatial modelling techniques for resource estimation and wrote several books on the subject in the 1980s, Houlding decided to devote the rest of his career to promoting online learning as a platform for disseminating mining expertise around the world.
In 1999 he joined InfoMine Inc. to start its educational division, and created EduMine. Today, EduMine is the largest provider of online professional development and training for mining in the world. (Infomine is a division of Glacier Media, which also owns The Northern Miner.)
In May, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum presented Houlding with the Vale Medal for Meritorious Contributions to Mining for his work at Lynx and EduMine.
“We started EduMine in 2000 with a mission to provide affordable, quality professional development and training for the mining industry, and we thought it was a really good idea,” Houlding says in a telephone interview from Vancouver, where he has lived since leaving Africa in 1976. “We have the best mining industry technology in Canada, and an Internet platform to disseminate it around the world.”
EduMine offers more than 160 online courses in English and more than 30 online courses in Spanish, as well as over 60 short courses and live webcasts. At any one time, Houlding says, as many as 6,000 people are active on the website, either taking courses, listening to lectures or accessing EduMine’s extensive archive. About 40% of its individual and corporate users are in North America, and the remaining 60% are offshore. Its biggest client base outside of North America comes from South America, but Africa makes up a lot of the business.
“I am proud of what we’ve achieved because it gives my colleagues and me a platform to communicate the knowledge that we have learned over time to the industry professionals coming up behind us,” Houlding tells TNM, after receiving the Vale Medal on May 12. “We’re the only ones doing this in the mining industry.”
From the very start, it was critical that EduMine’s courses were available in remote places where Internet connections were poor, Houlding says, “so we intentionally developed it with a low bandwidth requirement, and we’re still using it in a somewhat modified form.
“We have a lot of mine sites and customers in Africa, for example, in places like Mauritania, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, all with pretty poor bandwidth connections, and they can all access our courses quite comfortably.”
Affordability was also important. While many of EduMine’s corporate customers have deep pockets for staff training programs, individual users can access EduMine’s offerings for a flat fee of $53 per month. Should they want to take a course for professional development or for a training certificate, they must register and pay a fee, which typically ranges from $200 to $250, depending on the length of each course.
To get accreditation for its courses, EduMine worked with universities and mining associations, such as the University of British Columbia’s Mining School, the University of Arizona and Imperial College in London, among others.
Houlding and his team also had courses vetted by the Washington, D.C.-based International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET). Approval from IACET was important, Houlding explains, “because approval from them allowed us to issue continuing education units, and the courses then became professional development opportunities for any profession in the mining industry.”
Houlding says it wasn’t easy to gain traction in an industry well known for its conservatism, and its reluctance to embrace new ideas and ways of doing things.
“I think the conservatism is partly due to the fact that it takes so long to bring a mine into production,” Houlding says. “You have to find a deposit, and then it takes five to ten years to actually build a mine, so by its nature the industry breeds conservatism. If you’re going to spend $500 million to bring a mine into production and it takes six years to get there, you’re going to use tried and true methods, and that attitude flows into other things.”
That mindset has shifted a little bit, however, and Houlding notes that a number of mining companies are buying training programs and courses for staff who work at their far-flung operations. Teck Resources (TSX: TCK.B; NYSE: TCK) was one of the earliest adopters, he says, and there are several others, including Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX), Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX; NYSE: ABX), Kinross Gold (TSX: K; NYSE: KGC), Goldcorp (TSX: G; NYSE: GG) and First Quantum Minerals (TSX: FM; LSE: FQM).
EduMine works on a royalty model with its authors and presenters, who earn a 30–35% royalty on the revenue each of their courses brings in. “We had to come up with a royalty arrangement that incentivized our authors to develop courses,” he explains, adding that EduMine also collaborated with mining schools on various certificate programs.
The work keeps him busy, but Houlding still finds time to return to Africa every couple of years. In August he’s embarking on a motorcycle tour through Namibia and Botswana that will take in several game reserves along the way.
“Africa is a special place,” he says, “with an earthy romanticism all its own. You can breathe it.”