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Is Africa ready for advanced mining technology?

We live in an era where technology keeps advancing and continually alters and improves many facets of our social, economic and environmental existence.

Progression in information, energy and mechanization technology promises to transform the mining industry into a resilient sector.

The focus of new technology in the mining industry centers on developing new business solutions that counter cost and risk. Given the vast opportunities presented by such technology, it is imperative for developing countries, especially in Africa, to create enabling environments in which innovation can take root and participants of the mining sector can fully explore new strategies that enhance mining returns.

AUTHOR: Selina Zhuwarara

It has now become more pressing than ever to prioritize infrastructure projects that promote universal access to the internet of things and energy projects to stabilize and standardize the provision and access to power in Africa. These two facets are critical in ensuring that Africa is not left lagging behind.

There is strong consensus regarding how business can be enhanced by tapping into global connectivity. The internet has broken barriers, monopolies and limitations for every category of business enterprise.

Any business can achieve global reach if they are able to access the internet and make use of it. This means that connectivity and access is important for any business enterprise today.

Connectivity is particularly important in the mining sector because the technology being developed for the industry is highly reliant on connectivity and consequently power.

There is significant work being undertaken to develop solutions for mining in the areas of data science, advanced automation, blockchain, artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, advanced geospatial data mapping and Africa needs to take a leading interest into the development and propagation of these solutions for the mineral resources sector.

As noted above, the current crop of technology is driven by tools which require the presence and availability of secure and reliable information and communication pathways.

Resultantly these pathways also rely on the availability of secure electricity supply or reliable alternate power sources. At present connectivity and electrification are not accessed universally in most of Africa, and the cost of these two commodities remains relatively high compared to other developed regions.

There is significant room for utilizing regional collaboration to lower the cost of both connectivity and electricity. For Instance, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has vast tracts of arid regions and deserts whose area can be utilized for the generation of considerable amounts of solar energy which can assist in stabilizing and lowering the costs of energy in the region.

In terms of connectivity, the SADC region has most of its members bearing access to coastal land which means they have strategic advantage regarding access to internet gateways. This should translate into reduced bandwidth and data costs within the region and increased in-country connectivity for all its members.

There is a need to deliberately structure and follow through on local and regional policies that promote increased demand for internet usage, promote sharing of vital infrastructure, ease access to international gateways and reduce the cost of infrastructure set ups.

It is evident that an environment with high cost barriers to connectivity or limited electricity/energy infrastructure would be at a disadvantage in terms of the cost of integrating new technology.

This may consequently slow down the appetite and rate of integration of useful technologies in developing counties and leave them lagging. It is important for developing countries to prioritize and support the even distribution and availability of internet and communication infrastructure to ensure affordability of secure and reliable connectivity anywhere in their countries.

It is also important to prioritize the expansion of electrification grids and increase renewable energy projects that feed into their national and regional energy pools. Power is important not just for mining but for general industry as a whole. Disruptions or limitations in power supplies cost more than just money and down time; lack of reliable power ultimately stifles the integration of vital technologies. The future belongs to digitally competent countries that have environments which enable innovation to flourish.

The mining industry is seeing the increased growth and influence of mechanization solutions which are driven by artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence has become a major highlight in the industry given its potential to improve productivity, efficiency and facilitate precision mining which will limit environmental, safety and health impacts in the industry.

Rio Tinto launched its autonomous haulage train system in Pilbara Australia which consists of self driven trains that collect and haul ore across a 1 700 km stretch of private railway network. The trains are largely run remotely by a team stationed in Perth which is approximately 1 200 km away.

In Africa the interest in this area is also rising. Resolute Mining Company is currently working with Sandvik to fully automate its operations at Syama gold Mine in Mali. South Africa has also managed to successfully complete a proof of concept for autonomous trucking at a coal operation through collaborative efforts between an equipment manufacturer and Cisco.

Another important collaboration in South Africa is reflected in the partnership between Sibanye-Stillwater and the University of Witwatersrand in working together to furthering technology research and innovation at the university’s Digital Mining Laboratory. Many such projects shall be pursued and are being undertaken as a way of increasing mining efficiency by reducing risks.

The potential of such technology is significant to the resilience of the industry. While the initial set up costs are tremendous the return on investment over time is expected to significantly increase profitability and sustainability.

As previously noted, advanced automation requires secure and reliable connectivity and power. The investment into infrastructure that enables such operations is important.

The greatest fear with advanced automation and artificial intelligence in developing countries is its impact on the jobs market. The anticipation of job losses has largely driven negativity and skepticism towards automation. Many African economies are still driving for labour intensive industries so as to create employment.

Whilst the strategy may be ideal for the immediate, it is ill-suited for the future. Developing countries need to accept that automation and artificial intelligence will creep into its borders whether it’s accepted or not and it is better to anticipate and prepare for it in a manner that creates minimal disruption to job markets.

While artificial intelligence may make certain jobs in the mining sector redundant, awareness needs to be directed towards the increased need for human resources to be aimed at the health, environmental, community/social development and relations and the various computing support areas which will arise in the mining sector.

This requires mineral rich countries to start up skilling its labour pool set such that the sectors job market is prepared for the eventual shift to increased automation. In this case avoidance or passiveness is not a strategy for governments regulating mining sectors.

Digitalization of processes, data and information is an integral start to the transformation the mining sector in developing countries. Digitalization simply means embracing digital or inter-connected electronic systems to collect, analyze data, collate information, distribute it within an entity or network and store it.

Whilst large companies have access to a wide array of systems, applications and tools for digitalization at their disposal, the same cannot be said for small and medium scale entities that in most cases run their operations with limited resources. Many small to medium scale mining companies still rely on paper or manual systems for the collection, analysis, transmittance and storage of data.

This predicament is also extended to many government mining ministries in developing countries where even the mining registers, cadastres, application processes and regulatory returns are still done largely by paper and stored as such. This approach simply lacks efficiency and compromises the accuracy, security and integrity of data.

There should be a deliberate move to digitalize government operations, especially in the mining industry, by moving away from paper and manual based systems of regulation and oversight to integrated digital platforms. The same should be encouraged for mining entities across the different scales of operation.

There should be a general drive in the mining industry to promote tools that improve the way mines monitor their operations and make day to day operational decisions.

Reducing operational and management inefficiencies has a positive impact on productivity. The value of operational data and the ability to improve analytics on this data holds the key to operational efficiency and profitability in mining projects.

There is a lot of room for innovation regarding inclusive and unique digital solutions for mining in Africa. The cost of attaining digital applications that improve analytics can be prohibitive to small and medium scale miners and a tenable solution is to construct applications that can be accessed on readily available tools such as mobile phones.

It should be a common standard that an artisanal or small scale miner anywhere in Africa with access to the internet and a mobile phone can purchase a tailor made application that improves the collection of operational and production data thus ensuring that critical decisions can be made in real time based on improved oversight.

Digitalizing access to information and facets of regulatory oversight in the sector is also important; platforms can be created that efficiently disseminate and track implementation of important regulatory developments. Monopolies can also be broken by allowing the mineral commodities market to move to digital platforms.

The areas that digital solutions can positively impact are limitless. The Information and communication technology (ICT) and digital specialists’ community in Africa needs to enlarge and quicken its role in the development of tailor made solutions that address existing limitations in the mining sector.

There is a growing need to level the technological playing field in the mining sector by providing sustainable and scalable ICT and digital solutions for the different players that make up the sector.

All mineral rich countries in Africa should be leveraging synergies between tertiary institutions, industry stakeholders, global technology giants and development partners to create local ICT and digital solutions unique to the needs and circumstances of the mining industry in Africa.

Africa should not be left behind in the 4th technological revolution and mining presents a perfect opportunity to integrate many new useful innovations that enhance the returns of the industry. Proactive policies are required to make this a reality.