New age for Africa’s mineral wealth

Analysis in brief: New discoveries of valuable minerals remain regular occurrences throughout Africa. Getting these natural resources to market requires adaptations to new environmental, labour and social realities to ensure economic benefits are truly equitable.

While the trend in Africa’s minerals is shifting toward a demand for rare earth metals, there remains strong interest in and perennial customers for Africa’s traditional mineral extracts, from precious metals (like gemstones and gold) and industrial inputs (like copper) to energy extracts (like natural gas and oil). To meet the demand from all sources, exploration is an ongoing activity continentally. Scores of mineral deposits are located annually. A look at mineral discoveries from 1990 to 2020 shows all regions of Africa are bursting with new exploitable mineral wealth.

Metals are what brought foreign colonisers to Africa, and metals are the primary draw of foreign investors into Africa in the third decade of the 21st century. What has changed is not only the technology that allows for mass extraction of metals, even from previously inaccessible deposits, but the economic, environmental and labour landscapes surrounding extraction. The evolution of these landscapes must be understood by both the mining industry and the African people, who own these minerals and who have failed to benefit from their exploitation.

Locations of major mineral deposits discovered throughout Africa from 1990 to 2020
Data source: World Bank
Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

New technology must involve the African people

The same technology that enabled mining prospectors to discover previously undetected deposits are part of an innovation trend that is also seeing new mechanisms for pulling minerals out of the ground. While that is good for mining companies and the countries that will benefit from revenues incurred through extraction, there is another positive to the mining tech revolution: a way to address Africa’s skill shortages. New technologies require skilled operators, and while these may presumably be brought in from abroad, the location of operations in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo or unstable West Africa makes such work unattractive to foreigners.

Investors in African mineral extraction must tabulate the training of local workers to operate the tech into their costs. If this is not done pre-emptively, investors can be assured that governments’ mining policies, which evolve with the times, will make this mandatory for the licensing of mining operators. Providing higher paying tech jobs to locals will also boost the economies of the communities near the mines. This is one of the imperatives of African development in the 21st century: ensuring that the citizens of a country economically benefit from their natural resources. This is particularly true of mining, which for two centuries has seen the Congolese and other nationals languish in poverty while the world is enriched by minerals taken from their lands.

Skills transfer is also essential to avoid labour strife and further alienating local communities, exacerbating unemployment. Robotics and automation have become essential components in mining operations as a way to reduce costs, save time, increase productivity and operational efficiency and increase safety. The more unmanned machines at work underground excavating rocks, the fewer injuries and casualties suffered by human mining workers. The Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape province of South Africa is now fully automated, with unmanned machines drilling rocks that are transferred onto autonomous vehicles that navigate the mine’s underground labyrinth. Of course, the number of miners will be reduced as they are replaced by machines, but skills transfer will replace these losses with the higher paying jobs of technicians at the mines and of technical support and mining operation suppliers off-site. Ensuring smooth job transfer is essential because there is no question that the digital transformation of the mining industry is as unstoppable in Africa as elsewhere in the world.

A ship’s geological imaging technology surveys layers of minerals beneath the ocean floor
Image courtesy: CGG

Environmental and societal issues are mining sector responsibilities

Mining has destroyed or compromised African environments for centuries, from poisoning water and soil to polluting the air. These have made ecosystems uninhabitable to flora and fauna and have contributed significantly to deforestation. Mining operations are subject to public protests from affected communities, while minerals themselves are a source of danger when they turn communities into war zones by militant groups, seeking a source of revenue for their aggressions. Investors into African mining have an obligation to be particularly sensitive to environmental concerns. The longevity of any mining operation can now be tied to the employment of sustainable mining practices, such as the uses of water, and community engagement.

The pursuit of innovations to address environmental challenges has led to new water management practices, such as recycling systems tailored for mines. South Africa’s Northam Platinum Zondereinde mine now operates with a closed-loop system that reuses all water, resulting in zero discharge. The only water that is piped into the mine is for human use, such as for showers and cooking. The inefficient old system of prospecting has now been replaced by advanced geological imaging technology. Orbital satellites surveying lands for potential mineral deposits produce high-definition images of what lies beneath the Earth’s surface. The same technology aboard ships penetrates the ocean floor of Africa’s coastal waters. When South Africa’s Maseve platinum mine used geological imaging in 2020, ore deposits were accurately pinpointed. This ended any need for widespread excavations and, thus, eliminated any environmental damage that that process would produce.

There are two ways that the can go far to resolving the ‘resources curse’ that has left Africans impoverished and caught in conflict in countries rich in minerals. New technologies are the first. Secondly, mining companies’ must accelerate their dawning awareness that they are answerable not just to their shareholders but to have a responsibility to local communities and the environment.

The critical points:

  • Mining operations in Africa suffer from a legacy of environmental damage and a lack of benefit for African communities
  • Skills transfer is necessary to localise the high-tech jobs required to run modern mines and can help localise the economic benefits of mining operations
  • Technology that is revolutionising mine work globally can alleviate environmental perils that have afflicted Africa’s mining communities