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Africa is home to a third of the world’s mineral resources, so the continent is inevitably centre stage in the energy transition that aims to lead to a lower carbon future. But how can mining move quickly and responsibly enough to meet the demand for the minerals critical to energy security? Three SRK Consulting experts weigh in.
The global energy transition has accelerated demand for minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese and platinum group metals, according to PwC, that argues traditional ‘mature’ mining territories cannot support the potential need for increased supply. This means that miners will need to move into newer mining territories, which tend to be viewed as riskier.

This certainly creates opportunities for many African countries, as mineral wealth continues to hold significant transformative potential. However, mining is not conducted in a vacuum, and the industry’s approach has moved beyond simply reducing its negative impacts — it is now embracing a responsibility to actively contribute to socio-economic prosperity in host countries and mining communities.

Dealing strategically with complexity

This of course adds to the complexity of minerals exploration and development, especially when the energy transition places further time pressure on any prospective venture in this field. It is not unusual for mines to take 10-20 years to begin production after a potential deposit has been identified.

It is true that critical minerals like copper and cobalt have been mined for centuries in some African countries, but there is scope to pioneer a mining sector almost from scratch in certain regions where other less abundant minerals may be found. In these regions, the development process places a considerable weight of obligation on the explorers and mine developers — who must navigate a challenging working environment to facilitate progress.

These challenges may include a lack of detailed regulations, energy supply, water resources, skills and logistical infrastructure. They will certainly include the less visible but equally important aspects of a successful mining project, such as supportive relationships with local stakeholders and in-country regulators. Project champions will also have to consider the global appetite for financial support and the associated conditions — many of which relate to ESG imperatives.

Innovation across disciplines

In our experience, there are seldom any ‘short-cuts’ when trying to fast-track an exploration or mining project. In truth, the best way to ensure efficacy is to do everything correctly the first time around —rather than delay projects through insufficient foresight or quality of work. What today’s working environment demands is that a well-informed strategic approach should drive mineral ventures, from exploration and compliance through to stakeholder engagement and post-closure planning.

To respond responsibly to the global economy’s demand for a more ambitious pipeline of mineral production, industry players will need to combine their technical focus and empirical accuracy with a broad view that encompasses the range of impacts generated by each project. This means engaging a wide variety of relevant skill sets — each of which must talk to the others.

Exploration work, for instance, is not just about geology. It must be conducted alongside engagements with regulatory authorities and local communities, and preceded by social and environmental baseline studies which are vital if mining proceeds. Specialised local knowledge must be harnessed if projects are to comply with often rapidly evolving regulatory conditions such as those related to local sourcing or ownership.

Embracing technology

Innovative technology can also make an important contribution to speed up activities during the exploration phase. Today, there are various exciting digital tools available to professional earth scientists and engineers, which can save time and improve accuracy. The use of drones and photogrammetry for mapping geological structures, for example, help to deliver a better understanding of the geology and more reliable resource definition.

Similarly, effective management of big data has become a foundation of scientific engineering practice — and professionals in any mining-related discipline now consider data science a necessary extension of their skill set. Developing Africa’s mining sector to satisfy the needs of a lower carbon future means integrating this data effectively on both a project basis and – where possible – in regional datasets to foster and accelerate exploration efforts.

As critical mineral projects seek the funding they need to progress, they will also face stringent conditions from financial institutions and stock exchanges. These conditions relate not only to the integrity of their technical studies and financial projections, but to their ESG commitments and how they plan to implement them.

ESG compliance

Here, compliance is measured not only in terms of national legislation and professional requirements ranging from geology to accounting, but in terms of each financiers’ particular ESG standards. These generally align with global frameworks like the Equator Principles or the Mining Principles of the International Council on Mining and Metallurgy, and often will aim to promote the United National Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

As part of this attention to ESG, the global demand for battery minerals is accompanied by important related initiatives in key importing regions such as the European Union. The EU’s RE-SOURCING initiative, part of the European Green Deal, aims to ensure that the extensive global sourcing and consumption of raw materials for the green transition is based on sound sustainability principles and practices. This will require the application of certain conditions on those parties in the mining value chain.

What is significant about RESOURCING is that it recognises that African stakeholders will be affected by these conditions and has been working with SRK Consulting to facilitate the input of groupings such as mining communities and artisanal miners from around Africa. What is a seemingly high-level intervention at this stage, however, is likely to directly impact mine operators in Africa in future — especially regarding how their supply chain is rated in current and future European regulations.

All in all, the energy transition promises significant opportunities for African producers of critical energy minerals who can discover economic deposits, develop new mines or expand existing operations commercially.

The economic and commodity price environment is volatile, however, and project champions will need to be fastidious about the quality and breadth of skills they engage to roll out projects in compliance with local and global standards.