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Exploring in Africa
Regional initiatives and prospectivity

Virginia Heffernan

Professor Kim Hein in Zanna, Burkino Faso

Professor Kim Hein in Zanna, Burkino Faso

Kim Hein has been itching to get back to West Africa since she worked there as an industry geologist more than a decade ago. So when the opportunity to be part of a team researching the region's exploration potential arose, Hein - the world's first and only female professor of mining geology - jumped at it.

"I worked there a number of years ago and I fell in love with the area," says Hein, the Chamber of Mines Chair and Professor of Mining Geology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "I realized very quickly that although there were a lot of resources to be found there, it was dramatically underexplored."

The goal of the research project, known as the West African Exploration Initiative (WAXI), is to enhance the exploration potential of the Leo-Man Shield, a Proterozoic craton that spans several West Africa countries including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Sierra Leone and Togo and is the sister to the Guiana Shield in South America.

WAXI will use integrated research and data gathering to fill in gaps in geological knowledge, help mining companies to focus their exploration in areas of maximum prospectivity and assist the local geological surveys in their role of providing data and information.

"Even though the French have done a lot of work there, it is a giant craton and there is so much work that still needs to be done," says Hein. "It's very difficult to think about the potential if there is no data."

Hein says Paleoproterozoic terrains such as the Leo-Man Shield were once thought to have little mineral potential, but that view is changing as more and more discoveries are made in these two billion year old rocks.

She is working with mining companies to refine their exploration models by, for instance, finding out more about the structures that cross-cut the shield and host many of the region's gold deposits. "You want to be smarter in the way that you explore beyond doing a soil geochemical survey across a whole craton or using artisanal mining as an indicator of potential," she says.

The research is sponsored by the mining sector though AMIRA International, an Australian association dedicated to supporting collaborative minerals industry research. The lead institution is the Laboratoire des Mécanismes et Transferts en Géologie based in Toulouse.

The research team has just completed stage one of the 4-year program that involved a comprehensive data audit and gaps analysis of the current state of exploration knowledge. Stage two will draw upon the results of the first stage to fill in the gaps, particularly in geophysics, geochemistry and geochronology, and collate the results into a single web-based database open to all sponsors and local researchers.

Another important thrust of the program is capacity building in the region. Industry can take a lead role in this regard by providing training to local talent and supporting universities in the area.

 "Most of the universities in West Africa are under resourced and are really scraping to keep going," says Hein. "That makes it difficult to provide a high level of training and produce students who would suit industry and suit modern exploration."

Lack of skilled personnel is one of the many challenges facing explorers drawn to Africa by historically high metal prices and the continent's reputation for highly prospective yet underexplored terrain. Other barriers to exploration include poor or non-existent infrastructure, safety and security issues, and an inconsistent legal framework to regulate exploration and mining.

John Blaine doing Uranium reconnaissance in Botswana

John Blaine conducts Uranium reconnaissance in Botswana

"Probably the dominant feature of Africa is the diversity of countries," says John Blaine, a former managing director of Falconbridge in Southern Africa and now a consultant to Australia's Impact Minerals. "You're not dealing with one entity when it comes to mining policy and that can be your first challenge when you've chosen terrain that covers adjoining countries." 

And that's if the country has a functioning policy to begin with. Hein says that while some West African countries such as Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso have well-established legal frameworks, others with a history of political strife such as Sierra Leona and Liberia are much further behind. Because the Leo-Man shield and its resources span several countries, it is important that there be some consistency in legislation among the jurisdictions.

To that end, The World Bank recently hosted a two-day meeting among stakeholders in the region to discuss ways in which West and Central African countries can improve their agreements with foreign mining companies and manage their mining revenues to derive longer-term economic benefits.

There is also consensus that a lack of quality infrastructure may be the biggest constraint to economic growth, says Andrew Maggs, a specialist in infrastructure development in Africa. "This is particularly relevant to mining ventures that are frequently located in remote areas," says Maggs. "The more difficult it is to access these sites, the higher the operating expenses."

To address the problem, both multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB) and individual countries such as China are spending more than ever  on infrastructure in Africa. The AfDB committed US$3 billion to infrastructure development in 2007, up from US$1.36 billion the year earlier, while the World Bank contributed US$2.4 billion. The recently established China-Africa Development fund is expected to inject additional billions into infrastructure projects over the next few years as China secures badly needed sources of metals and oil.

Exploration Camp in Namibia

Exploration Camp in Namibia

Just as the development of a legal framework requires cooperation among adjoining countries, so does infrastructure development, especially when it comes to transport corridors or power projects. Maggs sees proposed power projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (INGA III) and Tanzania (Stieglers Gorge Hydro-Electric) taking a front seat as the power crisis on the continent continues.

Another barrier to exploration in Africa is security, from both a personal safety and health perspective. "Africa has got some weird and wonderful diseases in places, the biggest of which is malaria" says Blaine. "Many people underestimate the potential threat of malaria in many of the areas of Africa."

But for those willing to take the risk, Africa offers rich pockets of underexplored terrain. Blaine advises explorers new to the continent to first focus a commodity with which they have experience, find the terrains that host that commodity, then narrow down options based on practical matters such as safety and security of title.

Impact Minerals, for instance, focuses on nickel and uranium in Southern Africa because Blaine and the company's founder are respective experts in these two commodities and the region offers a relatively secure environment for exploration.

"Africa is a broad canvas," says Blaine. "There is huge potential in different regions, and there are so many unexplored areas. I think it's important to focus on what you're good at, and specialize in that."

For Professor Hein, that expertise and passion lies in the Paleoproterozoic geology of West Africa, where she sees enormous potential.

"There's great geology, a great work environment, great people, and great experiences," she says. "Yes it's hot, dry and there are struggles, but I simply love it."