Mining activity in West Africa is increasing and this trend is likely to continue. New mines have been established in Mali over the past few years, as well as in countries, such as Liberia, which are not traditionally associated with mining, says engineering consulting company SRK Consulting Ghana country manager John Kwofie.
There are mining projects at various levels of exploration and development in several West African countries. There has been activity in marble and limestone in Togo, the first large-scale gold mine is under development in Nigeria and there is considerable progress in uranium exploration in Niger, he adds.
Kwofie believes that – even in relatively well-explored countries like Ghana – there is scope for the significant expansion of certain existing operations, in addition to new discoveries.
The newly established Ghana Integrated Aluminium Development Corporation coordinates the aluminium development potential of Ghana. Focused on bauxite and aluminium production, its mandate is to leverage the country’s bauxite reserves and ancillary aluminium assets. A phosphate resource near the Togolese border is also being explored.
Kwofie says the majority of the mines in West Africa continue to struggle with unstable power supply, corruption, political instability and a lack of specialised skills.
There is also the growing challenge of securing and retaining a social licence to operate, which requires mining companies to find more effective ways of engaging with local stakeholders to ensure that the benefits of mining are felt even at grass roots level.
“This is not an easy issue, and may require the mining sector to consider the financial provision approach. This means that a portion of mines’ annual revenues needs to be kept aside to address social-impact issues as currently done for environmental rehabilitation.”
Many mines have also resorted to generating power for their own use, instead of relying on unstable and unreliable supply from national sources – this is not only a costly solution but also increases the cost of doing business. Kwofie adds that it also accelerates the hurdle rate for mining projects, subsequently making it more difficult for the mines to prove their viability.
Further, there seems to be a decline in artisan and technician training, which are critical skills on which mines rely heavily.
“The lack of skills has been addressed by some mining companies through their in-house training facilities to upgrade the skills of local artisans and technical staff. However, many West African school leavers are more interested in university careers, which causes a setback in this regard.”
Technological Trends and Advances
Over the past two years, digital mining technologies – including artificial intelligence, virtual reality and Big-Data-generating digital tools and capabilities – have been steadily making their way into West African mining.
Kwofie states that using photogrammetry methods in digitally capturing orientation data of geological structures in openpits is increasing.
“We are also seeing the use of intelligent rock bolts that transmit information on their identity and the level of stress they are carrying relative to their yield points in a lot of the underground mines.”
On the back of Ghanaian President Nana Akufo Addo’s lauded speech – which highlighted the need for collaboration between all stakeholders in the mining sector – at the 2019 Investing in African Mining Indaba, which was held in Cape Town earlier this year, many West African governments are now aiming to improve their mining charters, he adds.
While most mining codes are focused on attracting investment through various incentives, Kwofie insists that they are often not sufficiently clear on aspects like governance and social responsibility.
“These frameworks are likely to need greater clarity on social licence to mine and a recognition of the expectations of local communities. Even though these communities are often not directly employable, they still express a right to benefit from the mining activity that takes place in their backyard,” he says.
For the year ahead, the SRK Ghana office will focus on geotechnical work. As the company’s key West African practice, it will assist clients with openpit slope stability analysis.
It will also work on tailings dams and foundation investigations. Kwofie adds that SRK will leverage the broad mining, environmental, infrastructure, oil and gas, water and energy expertise from the group’s other offices worldwide.
“The office is a springboard to other countries in the region, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the company is active. The intention is to further grow SRK’s Ghana office into a hub to take advantage of the company’s footprint in the region.”
Kwofie adds that SRK’s experience and presence in West Africa is an assurance to the industry that it can work with existing and new clients, from exploration to closure, while providing quality, independent and cost-effective consultancy services.
“An important element of our offering is the ongoing collaboration between our offices worldwide, where our Ghana office draws on expertise from South Africa, the UK, Canada and the US and we, in turn, offer our expertise to their projects,” he concludes.