The people, science and technology behind discovery

First International Mining for Development course into Africa

The training is part of a longer term capacity building process to encourage economic development in African countries

by Dan Zlotnikov on August 3, 2012community

Africa is fast becoming the newest frontier in mining activity: Australian investment alone in the continent’s mining sector is expected to total $50 billion over the next three years. Supporting this surge in activity is the International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC), a partnership between the Australian government, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Queensland, and funded through AusAID.

As African countries seek to attract further mining exploration investment, the importance of effective, efficient cadastral systems and high-quality survey data is becoming ever clearer: In 2004-2005, Australian exploration companies were spending $1 million per year in Burkina Faso. In the upcoming 12 months, Australian exploration and mining development investment in the country will exceed $100 million and where seven years ago there was one company there are now 14.

“Burkina Faso is stable, has good laws for investment, and most importantly provides high quality country-wide mineral exploration datasets, from which exploration programs can be more effectively designed,” says Peter Williams.

Williams was one of the initiators and coordinators of the new IM4DC offering: a series of five week-long modules on integration of cadastral, geoscience, and geographical data usage in GIS systems for mining exploration and development conducted in Burkino Faso from May to July 2012. Offered in partnership with the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Exploration Targeting and Burkina Faso’s own Teng Tuuma Geoservices, the course aimed to give African governments access to the expertise they need to best apply GIS systems to their resource governance programs.

The students – including 25 government staff from eight African countries – were given training in the use of Esri ArcGIS, Geosoft Oasis montaj, Geosoft Target, and Noddy, a magnetic field modelling program developed by fellow course instructor Dr. Mark Jessell.  “The Esri and Geosoft software packages are international standards, addressing the many needs of mineral exploration professionals be they in government or industry” says Williams. “They are also reasonably easy to use and learn, and  well suited to managing large amounts of disparate data and information.” Some 50% of the course time was devoted to hands-on exercises using actual West African datasets.

Williams explains that one of the major challenges faced by African natural resource ministries is in attracting and retaining skilled personnel: Incoming foreign companies offer better wages and employment conditions, leaving the ministries understaffed and their remaining experts overstretched. This leads to delays and problems in permitting and land title issuance, a fundamental building block of mineral exploration investment and subsequent efforts. GIS systems, such as ESRI ArcGIS, can serve as a “force-multiplier,” allowing government staff to better manage large and complex datasets and create new maps derived from these.

Williams highlights another important goal of the course: The nurturing of entrepreneurship in the African mining service and private education sector.  

“Our host company for the course, Teng Tuuma Geoservices, is a new style of fully African owned and managed company,  aimed at not only providing a best-practices service to the mineral exploration industry, but also nurturing the highest quality of continuous professional development of African professionals in their own country,” he says.

“We are not competing with universities,” he continues, “but rather are focused on the practical, everyday implementation of the knowledge gained from university and the effective transformation of this knowledge into best practices as required by the mining industry.”

To this end, the course covered not only mineral exploration usages but also introduced applications in areas of environmental monitoring and compliance, as well as engineering site investigation for tailings dams.

The course is part of a broader continuous development program for geoscience professionalism that is focused on best practices, says Williams. Over time, this will change the landscape for the African professional in his or her own country.  

“We will have more in-depth courses on GIS, cadastral systems, geophysics and geochemistry.  The first course is merely the foundation of an exciting future,” explains Williams.

Future courses will build on foundational skills covered in the current offerings, so Williams emphasizes that it’s important to get the courses structured and interfaced properly “so they are not just a random collection of events, but rather systematic development of understanding and practice.”

Williams also emphasizes the industry’s contribution and involvement, both for letting some of their staff attend the different modules and – in the case of Avocet Mining – for providing practical datasets to use in the classroom. The company also allowed the attendees to visit a key exploration site in Burkina Faso as part of the Field-Based Learning exercise.

The skills learned during the course will be usable right away: Williams says that Burkina Faso is in the process of adopting a new cadastral system.

“Similarly, in Côte d'Ivoire, the Mining Ministry are now evaluating a new cadastral system as part of their rapid re-development program. Our course was very timely for these governments.”

Going forward, Williams says, the initiative intends to maintain and extend the learning experience for all participants through a new online learning portal, currently under development.

“There was a lot of material covered and we fully expect participants to continue to interact with the lecturers and each other through this portal, so the learning is reinforced and an alumni network is built. We are also following a number of exciting Internet based education initiatives, some of which may be very useful in broadening our reach at a cost base which is affordable to a greater part of the geotechnical profession in Africa.”