The race to seize colossal gold resources in 'elephant country'

Liberia, known as the 'elephant country' by gold miners, has often been overlooked by investors due to the political tensions in neighbouring countries. There is however, one penny share that’s looking to tap into Liberia’s rich gold resources, explains Tom Bulford

Alexander Betts began smelting and refining precious metals in Birmingham's jewellery quarter in 1760. Remarkably, the business is still there today.

And if you are ever tempted to answer Dale Winton's plea to cash your gold', the items that you trade in for the rock-bottom rates offered will be probably find their way there. They will be melted down by what is now called the Stephen Betts Group'.

A few years ago, Stephen received a call from a minister of the post-Charles Taylor Liberian government. Would he be interested in acquiring some options over gold exploration licences in the east of the war-ravaged country? His answer was yes.

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His son Daniel began hawking the idea around London's junior mining community, looking for support. He got none.

But he still reckoned that the licences were worth having. And he figured that if he wanted anything done, he had better do it himself. So he borrowed some money from friends and family and formed Hummingbird Resources.

Six years later and Hummingbird Resources (LON:HUM) is quoted on the stock market. The business is valued at a chunky £84m. And according to Daniel, those Liberian licences are about to start paying off...

An erupting political crisis threatens elephant country'

When I met Daniel Betts recently there was no mistaking his enthusiasm. He refers to the project as my baby'. Liberia, he told me is elephant country' - the term given to areas that could host seriously large reserves of natural resources.

Daniel showed me a map of the Birimian Craton. This is a geological feature that stretches across West Africa. It has already yielded major metal deposits in countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

It is in fact rapidly taking over from South Africa's Witwatersrand as the main hunting ground for African resource hopefuls. However, its extremity in eastern Liberia has so far been largely neglected.

Naturally, I asked Betts about the erupting political crisis in neighbouring Ivory Coast. There, President Laurent Gbagbo took exception to defeat at the hands of his people and decided to massacre them instead.

Although desperate emigrants fleeing across the border into Liberia should not present a problem for Hummingbird, the political climate of West Africa is not noted for its tranquility. Unrest has a habit of spreading like wildfire and this has to be entered on Hummingbird's ledger as a risk.

And its strategic business plan, arguably, is another risk...

The potential gold resources are gigantic - but what about the risks?

So far Hummingbird has proved over 800,000oz of gold in the Indicated and Inferred categories. But Betts is convinced that this is the tip of the iceberg.

Its land position of over 7,000 sq. kms covers the last remaining unexplored part of the Birimian sequence. The 800,000oz resource has been gathered from just a 2.8km section of a 60km shear zone - and the latter is only one of four prospective zones.

At this point, many mining juniors would be planning either to start a small-scale mining operation to establish the principle and to earn some cash flow; or else would be looking to bring in partners to monetise some of the work that has been done so far. Betts, though, has no intention of doing either.

Having raised $40m on its AIM flotation in December, he wants to proceed with exploration for the next two years, establishing as large a resource as possible.

He is confident in the prospectivity of the region. Although it is not high grade, the gold is near the surface, is found consistently, and is easy to extract from the ore body.

With these qualities, Betts is confident that a prolonged exploration program is in the best interests of Hummingbird's shareholders.

But is it? In two years time, if all goes according to plan, Betts will look to turn a substantial resource into a working mine. Hummingbird will need plenty of cash to do so and will need to find funding.

But how will the world look in two years time? Will the gold price still be at $1400/oz or above? Will there be the same enthusiasm for mining investments as there is today? Will Liberia and indeed the whole of West Africa be a stable and supportive mining province or a melting pot of political tension?

And, in industry where the spigot of finance can be tuned off as quickly as it is turned on, will Hummingbird find itself in a strong negotiating position?

I am looking forward to finding out.

Before I go today, I'd like to draw your attention to something...

Investing in 2011: Crisis or Opportunity?

On Friday 17 June I'm going to be giving a talk in London about the most exciting investment opportunities I see for the year ahead - and I'd really like to have you involved.

It's an exciting idea. MoneyWeek are pulling together all their top contributors - and we're going to spend a few hours debating the best way to invest in 2011.

The official title is: Investing in 2011: Crisis or Opportunity.

And joining me will be Merryn Somerset Webb, Tim Price, James Ferguson, Dominic Frisby, Paul Hill, John Burford and Simon Caufield.

There's sure to be some pretty heated discussion with that lot.

I'll send you more details about the event over the next week. But for now, I'd appreciate it if you put Friday 17th June into your diaries.

Until next week, good luck with your investments.

This article was first published in Tom Bulford's twice-weekly small-cap investment email The Penny Sleuth.

Tom worked as a fund manager in the City of London and in Hong Kong for over 20 years. As a director with Schroder Investment Management International he was responsible for £2 billion of foreign clients' money, and launched what became Argentina's largest mutual fund.

Now working from his home in Oxfordshire, Tom Bulford helps private investors with his premium tipping newsletter, Red Hot Biotech Alert.

Follow Tom on Google+.