The mining of iron ore and gypsum and fish processing form the backbone of Mauritanian industry. In 1998, mining exports equaled $214 million, or 56 percent of total exports, a 23 percent increase from 1997, making the state-run mining company the largest foreign exchange generator. Mining is of greatest interest to foreign investors, and suppliers of mining equipment and services. Mauritania is trying to develop new natural resources, notably gold and oil. In 1998 and 1999, research contracts were signed with Canadian Rex Diamond Mining Corporation and Australian Ashton West Africa Property. Researchers have confirmed the presence of gold, phosphate, aluminum, and copper in several regions, and Australian Woodside Petroleum has reported positive results at its offshore drilling in Mauritanian waters.
The domestic market's lack of scale, skilled labor, and infrastructure, and its high utility costs and poor credit make Mauritania unattractive for foreign manufacturers. Manufacturing and handicrafts accounted for 4.4 percent of GDP in 1998 and are concentrated in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. They include food processing, chemicals and plastics, building materials, and paper and packaging materials. Six companies account for 57 percent of investment and 40 percent of the 1,100 jobs in the sector. Of the 10 companies established in the 1980s in fish processing, 8 have failed due to high water and electricity costs, skilled labor shortages, poor infrastructure, and low hygiene standards.