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Positive trends in African mining

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While mineral exploration investments and discoveries dominate headlines for Africa's mining prospects in 2024, underlying progress in strengthening the sector's future is less visible. Image credit: SRK Consultant

Positive trends in African mining  

Despite recent headwinds there is significant progress that will strengthen the future of mining in Africa.

By Andrew van Zyl, Managing Director, SRK Consulting

While mineral exploration investments and great discoveries grab the headlines, there is less visible progress being made that promises to strengthen the sector’s future.

Africa’s substantial and varied mineral endowment is undisputed, and the year ahead will likely see ongoing progress in exploration and mine development.

This will be in both ‘traditional’ metals and in those minerals associated with the global energy transition.

According to S&P Global, the continent is home to the world’s highest grade of mid-sized gold reserves.

At the same time, it also hosts more than half the planet’s platinum group metal, manganese and cobalt reserves – which are vital for certain battery storage technologies.

By the end of 2022, there was a healthy project pipeline of almost 600 projects led by gold and copper-cobalt, but also including coal, diamonds, PGMs and base metals.

The exploration spend at that time was rising at about 12% year-on-year, driven mainly by funding out of Canada followed by Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Islands of prosperity and positive trends in African mining 

There is every reason to feel confident that mining is an industry with a great deal still to contribute to Africa’s economic development – even if the progress is uneven between countries and regions. Perhaps the more important questions about mining’s prospects for the coming year relate to the foundation that we are creating for the longer term.

As mining has grown across the continent, it often creates islands of prosperity that stand out starkly from the existing socio-economic landscape.

Mines attract not only job-seekers and prospective suppliers and beneficiaries, but also informal artisanal miners; the result is a range of environmental, social and other impacts that are complex to manage.

Furthermore, these impacts don’t only remain locally significant. As mineral-consuming corporates and end-users become more concerned to ensure ethical standards in procurement, so these in-country conditions attract international attention.

These issues are just one aspect of the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) priorities that are now considered by mining operations – including human rights, decarbonisation and supply chain localisation.

Mining and society

As we look ahead to 2024, it is important to reflect on the progress that the sector is making in addressing these challenges. From our experience in SRK Consulting, there is certainly much to commend mining’s advances to date – notwithstanding the difficulties yet to be resolved.

Consider, for example, how the purely technical focus in areas such as engineering, mining, and processing has evolved.

The business of mining has today generally embraced a much broader understanding of how mining can support broader societal goals and better engage with the community. This has led to the integration of disciplines relating to water, environmental and social science, which now make an essential contribution to the way that mines are planned and operated.

In this sense, mining is always being positively disrupted by advances in expertise, approach, and technology – albeit usually at a gradual pace.

Importantly, there have been many changes across an ever-wider spectrum of professional fields, as we bring more disciplines to bear on our central goal of responsible and efficient mining.

This ongoing development of expertise in a broader range of disciplines is also contributing to progress in solving previously intractable challenges like artisanal mining.

Andrew van Zyl, partner and principal consultant at SRK Consulting. Image credit: Jeremy Glyn for SRK Consulting.

Pioneering standards

Mining institutions have played an important role in continuously raising the ESG bar alongside the industry’s technological advances.

Standards of business practice are always being developed and reviewed in the light of global trends, and the sector’s leading companies commit to these and devote considerable resources to applying them.

In Africa’s mining sector, this is particularly important – as there are still many countries where regulatory frameworks to govern in-country mineral exploration and extraction are not yet well developed.

The importance of industry codes is that they can raise performance levels, irrespective of the capacity of the host country to legislate and police these requirements.

We have seen an example of this recently with the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM), where the sector worked with stakeholders to develop more stringent and far-reaching requirements.

Members of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) committed themselves to comply, and these standards will in time become the new benchmark for the whole sector. There are few countries whose national or industry regulations are as demanding as the GISTM, which has galvanised important progress in a very short time.

Shifting priorities

Over our five decades in business, SRK has seen how our mining clients’ needs and priorities have shifted, and we have responded by expanding our mining-related expertise by drawing on additional disciplines.

An example of the company’s early foresight was the embracing of social science in mining. As early as 1995, it was employing its first social and developmental specialist, who went on to become a partner of the firm and help guide strategy and focus.

This appointment was fully supported by SRK’s founder members, who encouraged this direction long before it found its way into legal conformance requirements.

High standards are also vital for mining as our impact is so concentrated – unlike sectors like the construction industry where negative externalities tend to be more diffuse.

Mines are large operations, and many have long life-spans; their impacts are deep and varied, and are highly visible to all.

In the year to come, industry will continue to work – often under the radar – to find integrated solutions that contribute to resilience in the sector.

As outlined here, such true resilience will be based upon cost competitiveness that is achieved in the context of an external environment that requires sustainable environmental and social practices.

Importantly, mining will continue to progress in supplying minerals critical to society and in its transition to more responsible and sustainable practices.

Positive trends in African mining  

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Positive trends in African mining  

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