Digitalisation: Prospects for Africa’s Mining Sector

Published on 5th February 2019

A Sector Captive of Own Ambitions and Ambivalence

Home to strategic minerals, cheap labour, less stringent rules, and above-average profit margins, Africa’s mining sector remains attractive to foreign investors. Africa´s mining sector is loved and hated in equal measure. It attracts a mix of ambitions and ambivalence. The Africa Mining Vision, for example, aspires to a “transparent, equitable and optimal exploitation of mineral resources” for sustainable growth and socio-economic development.

Nashon Adero, a Kenyan mining educator and researcher observes that, “Africa’s mining sector has for too long painted the portrait of paradoxes, better known for the vices of land dispossession, destitution, death, and deformity - than for the aspirational virtue of inclusive economic empowerment.” From the abundance of cobalt in Congo, copper in Zambia, to uranium in Niger, Namibia and South Africa, Africa is rich in the critical resources driving global clean energy megatrends such as the production of electric vehicles. Energy security is among the key setbacks that have kept the door to industrialisation closed on Africa.

Mining as an Early Adopter of Trending Technologies

Globally, the mining sector has been an early adopter of technological innovations. Mining 4.0, in step with Industry 4.0, is an experience in digitally leveraged intelligence with automation and robotics. Big data underpins the scalabilities desired in the mining sector, which are promoted by the growing momentum of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as Virtual-, Augmented- and Mixed-Reality. Advances in surveying and mapping technologies, both ground-based and remotely sensed from space satellites, continue to generate increasing amounts of spatial data in forms that can readily be processed in Geo-Information Systems (GIS). Drones, though still facing legal questions in many African territories, have already found substantial applications in generating high-resolution imagery for mine planning and environmental monitoring.

Data as a Strategic Asset for the Digital Economy

We are living in an era when data-driven digital revolution is marking an irresistible watershed. The trajectory of changes has been crystal clear: from the era of data manipulation using the mainframe computer, through PCs, and now to internet-enabled cloud services – an amazing trend with contraction in the gestation periods of impactful technological breakthroughs. Predicting and preparing for what is next in the sequence of innovative data management technologies can only be a fascinating and rewarding adventure worthy of full policy support.

The recently concluded talks at the World Economic Forum reflected convergence of opinions on the inevitability and growing vigour of the digital economy. To achieve the Africa Mining Vision in this context, African countries must fully realise the strategic value of data and the efficiencies brought about by digitalisation, which presents actionable opportunities for accelerating gains for governments and communities on several fronts. Africa should leapfrog and reap gains from these digitally driven changes, by instituting them as an integral part of the governance framework for her rich extractives sector. The Africa Data Consensus and the Africa Mining Vision agree on the need to bring together African governments and businesses to foster homegrown and sustained data revolution to drive social, economic and structural transformation in every African country.

Digitalisation as a Strategic Assurance for Empowerment

If taken up well, executed properly, and implemented fully, digitalisation promises to modify Africa’s mining narrative towards a promising and inclusive future for managing her mineral wealth. Digitalisation ensures that the requisite data and information meet the four crucial standards of findability, accessibility, interoperability, and reusability.

A recent Afro-European panel discussion during the African Week held on 18th June 2018 at Freiberg University of Mining and Technology, Germany, drew the attention of participants to the imperative of empowering the African communities in mining areas to ensure sustainable livelihoods both during mining and after the closure of the mines. Adequate data is key to achieving this objective, by informing multi-stakeholder dialogue and the monitoring of outcomes.

Business innovations for a vibrant mining sector with reduced information asymmetries need digital data which can be readily accessible on mobile devices. Citizens can thus be empowered through digital online crowdsourcing platforms. This digital leap will enhance the reporting of spatially verifiable mining-related violations and further emancipate low-cadre artisanal miners from exploitations by middlemen.

Digitalisation for Inclusive Decision Support

Mining is positioned at the critical crossroads constituting the land-environment-human rights nexus. This fact calls for an inclusive multi-stakeholder approach to decision-making, as opposed to the exclusive elitist architecture of vertical decision silos. Data-driven decision-making offers the strategic window for influencing inclusive knowledge-based mining policies in Africa. Productivity, safety, and inclusive community development must be key considerations.

The digitalisation of location and attribute data on mine sites, mineral types, land parcels, conservation areas, critical natural resources, demographics, and all the accompanying socio-economic parameters provides a versatile and prolific platform for integrated analysis in Geo-Information Systems (GIS) for decision support. The prevalence of legacy systems, made up of analogue land records, cannot match the pace of the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution. Such analogue records present all the inconveniences and high costs of duplications, outdatedness, storage, imprecision, fragmentations, gaps, and incompatibilities. They are, as such, important sources of inefficiencies and conflicts in Africa’s mining sector.

Digitalisation for Investment Decisions with Transactional Integrity

Except for artisanal mining, which mainly thrives on haphazard labour-intensive ventures, the normal face of transformative and organised mining enterprises is capital-intensive. As such, investor confidence becomes a key imperative for attracting win-win collaborative engagements, including sustainable public-private partnership models. Such confidence demands an operating environment where there is a predictable regulatory framework with transparency and transactional integrity. Spatial and transactional integrity requirements bring into focus the promises of accurate surveying and mapping, as well as blockchain technologies. Digital formats have become a fundamental characteristic of the resourceful data value chain, and critical to creating the online mining cadastres which progressive mining legislations promote (e.g. Kenya’s Mining Act of 2016 – regarded as Africa’s exemplar of modern and progressive mining laws).

Digitalisation, therefore, paves the way forward – a means to the aspirational goals for Africa´s mining sector. Sustained research and mapping efforts should go beyond the land to the sea, being the next blue-economy frontier for deep-sea mining. African governments must, therefore, undertake determined and collaborative measures to bridge the digital divide and collaborate in the effort to achieve the preparedness and technological readiness for this new frontier.

By Nashon Adero

Lecturer of Mine Surveying, Taita Taveta University

[email protected].

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