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Mining Indaba 2024: Debates begin in Cape Town

Panel discussion at Mining Indaba 2024. (Image source: Alain Charles Publishing)

With the opening of the Investing in African Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town comes the start of the many expert panel sessions and discussions that will be colouring the proceedings across the four days

These sessions will cover everything from balancing supply and security to the role technology can have in supporting safe mining. On the opening day, the first discussion that opened this four-day discourse focused on global electronics and automotive producers at the innovations stage. Here, Fabiana Di Lorenzo, senior director of impact, innovation and credibility at the Responsible Minerals Initiative, hosted an expert lineup of industry experts to assess whether Africa can play a meaningful role in the emerging market and the value the continent can play to the industrialisation of components. 

Isabelle Ramdoo, deputy director of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF), was tasked with opening the conversation by considering the risks that could bar the continent from making use of the significant critical minerals it has been endowed with and prevent it from becoming a major player in the energy transition. 

"There are two main risks from my perspective," Ramdoo remarked. "The first is not having the minerals in time for the energy transition. We know growth demand is outpacing supply and we need more minerals. However, we often cannot get these off the ground due to the lag between discovery and introduction. 

"The other, and main, risk is having the minerals but not having the social acceptance or environmental acceptance. When we need more minerals, we have to go to other frontiers and this will have an impact on local communities, farmers etc often in water-stressed areas. Governments need to manage the trade-off between getting minerals and the risks to the local area as well as the environment. There is mounting pressure to mine responsibly but also to add more value. The model for a lot of countries is from pit to port but this is not acceptable and a lot are now taking measures to get more value in-country. 

"This is so important as it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, to do this, structures need to be addressed and industrial capabilities need to be increased."

Geopolitical concerns

Returning to risks, Ramdoo addressed the "elephant in the room" in geopolitical concerns. "We used to think the global supply chain was just about economics - whether it was competitive to act in a region. But today politics, whether the country is secure and whether supply chains can be accessed is critical and can be very difficult to navigate."

Unravelling this thread, Fahmida Smith, principal market development at Anglo American, assessed the risks from two perspectives: country and industry level. For the former, Smith said that it is important to understand no one will make much progress by themselves, but collaboration is therefore key - not just between government and big industry but also between government and small industry, alongside civil society. 

Smith commented, "As an organisation, we have identified three key priority areas: energy security, logistics and crime & corruption. To this effect we are part of three different committees such as the Energy Action Plan, looking at how to reduce load-shedding - something that is plaguing the country at the moment and causing huge issues from a commercial point of view. This committee focuses on what we need to do to reduce this risk. The other looks and how to ensure logistics are efficient and the third is set up by the South African police services to address construction mafias which is already seeing progress. We can always do more but last year almost 130 companies in South Africa and the Government committed to building a better country. The conversations started and it is moving in the right direction, with all putting their energy into resolving these issues."

Continuing, Smith said that to address risk from a company perspective, Anglo American is ensuring it is a trusted corporate leader with a responsibility to leave no one behind as the energy transition is realised. It does this through a sustainable mining plan, focusing on how to mine materials responsibly. Top of the priorities for this is to ensure the provenance of materials is known and to ensure mining is conducted in a responsible, environmentally-friendly way that creates social benefits in the communities operated around. 

Smith also addressed a key point around skills development, using the future hydrogen economy - developing in some parts of the world but largely new in South Africa - as a focal point. She explained there is a need to put an effort in to drive a sustainable, local economy now. First, this would be advocating for enabling policy framework and a sustainable environment roadmap. She noted the company is working with other industries in terms of developing skills in the country for this future, responsible for building high-level education so skills are available when the technology becomes to ensure local people can operate, maintain and service this economy. 

Looking at downstream

Moving on, Di Lorenzo turned the conversation to the downstream, and invited Jasper Jung, executive director, of strategic initiatives, and global public policy at General Motors, to provide his insights on what companies like his are looking in to invest in African countries. Jung explained, "Really, as an automation manufacturer being at Mining Indaba for the first time is a reflection of the evolving industry and the strategy we have as we continue to vertically integrate our supply chains around electric vehicles and batteries. This is where Africa can play a meaningful role; not just for critical minerals but the process of materials - things like lithium hydroxides and other gaps in supply chains. This is where we can work together and collaboration is critical."

On the downstream side, Jung noted this collaboration between government and private sector can address issues around electric vehicle ecosystems such as charging infrastructure and ultimately create downstream demand. In regards to upstream, he said the company looks at four pillars of approach including security, sustainability, scalability and cost-competitiveness. This is what is considered and balanced when the company looks at projects around electric vehicles and the supply chain going forward. 

The final speaker of the panel, Joseph Starwood, worldwide mining industry leader at Microsoft Corporation, provided his thoughts. He said, "With respect to Microsoft. We consume the commodities that mining produces but how does Microsoft connect back to mining? This is where traceability comes into play. Over the years I have worked with the industry and I am proud of the way the mining industry has used digital technology to look more comprehensively at its ESG footprint. At first, efforts were around emissions control, then ESG commitments became more firm and robust. Looking at this footprint in a sustainable supply chain feeds well into what Microsoft and other electronic companies are concerned about."

Starwood explained that more mining clients are looking at operational data as equivalent to ESG data; how they make decisions and execute them determines not only operational performance but also informs ESG performance. Companies can apply data and AI etc to optimise across the value chain and also achieve ESG goals as well. 

Developing skills

The sessions concluded by returning to the debate around skills and ensuring these are in place and accessible for Africans to have a meaningful role in the global economy. 

Smith responded here by commenting, "Any country does not have all the requisite skills all the time. The world is changing and, as it changes, skillsets need to change. Industry and government need to be adaptable to changes and identify the opportunities around skill transfer for upgrading skills and teaching new skills. We need to make sure the workforce can learn and be agile to adapt."

"The world is changing rapidly," Starwood agreed, "and rather than focus on a particular set of skills it would be better to encourage a growth mindset. Learn how to learn. We also need to accelerate how to transfer skills and organisation partnerships are key here to bring in partners with skills and provide foundations for workforces to learn more skills." He suggested that by rethinking operating models around skills, companies can have a different idea of what skills are core and what can be obtained from partners. Perhaps, he concluded, open ecosystems (or open mining ecosystems) could be the way forward to ensure the continent is equipped with the right knowledge for embracing the oncoming energy transition opportunity. 

See also 

Mining Indaba underway in Cape Town


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