How Africa’s mining industry is responding to innovation

While mining companies continue to be pressured by the uncertainty that looms over the global economy, the industry is on a quest to introduce innovation to help improve important business practices. Despite the challenges that remain, the mining industry is increasingly turning to digital technologies to streamline business models, capture reliable data and improve production and safety.

To understand exactly how the mining industry is responding to innovation, it is useful to examine what has led to the interconnectedness of the industry. The global mining sector is becoming increasingly automated and digitalised, as technological advances have proven to have many benefits, such as improved safety, efficiency, and productivity.

Africa’s mining industry faces challenges that are also evident in other markets, such as access to ever faster and more reliable connectivity, which is the cornerstone to any efficient IT strategy. This challenge can be heightened by the fact that mining sites, open-cast, offshore, and underground, are usually very remote.

Technological integrations should be viewed as an opportunity to transform the mining business models and reshape the way mining companies create and deliver value. However, interconnectedness and connectivity make the industry more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The reality is, the more technology companies deploy the weaker they can become. It is important that businesses are aware of this, and control the introduction of new digital solutions by ensuring that proper security is in place. We understand how IT can lower the cost of ownership for technology through standardisation and increased speed of implementation for digital projects; for example, mining companies that autonomously track ore along the entire value chain could gain efficiency improvements of 5 to 10 percent in recovery.

The specific challenges of mining businesses operating in Africa with the most significant impact apart from infrastructure, ports, rails, water, roads and electricity, are regulatory and legislative uncertainty.  Exploration and mining companies benefit from having a stable framework in this regard, when it comes to obtaining mining rights and environmental authorisations.

While infrastructure in Africa is improving on the back of investments, this remains a challenge for all businesses in the region. However, this challenge has spurred creativity within the industry, with some mining companies being well in advance in terms of adopting new technologies to overcome the hurdles. Other challenges for businesses operating or looking to operate in Africa include labour uncertainties, illegal mining operations as well as rapidly varying commodity prices, which has increased the demand for pay-as-you-use solutions in the region.

Establishing stability in operations is the first step towards transforming mining businesses, and the industry as a whole, in a meaningful way. Mining companies are showing keen interest in becoming more digital in their strategies and business plans, in order to enhance their health and safety practices. For instance, systems that can be monitored and managed remotely allow a mining company to monitor and communicate with onsite personnel at all times. In the event of a mine collapse, for example, communications would allow personnel to activate alarms and for the company to quickly report on who is safe and whose safety is being threatened.

Another aspect of achieving stability is improved collaboration with big data and analytics. We foresee several benefits in analysing the huge volume of data that is collected in the mine, in order to optimise processes. For instance, mining companies continuously seek to add value by converting data into meaningful information, and increase productivity by automating the actions required as a result of this information. One could make the assumption that such companies will be at the forefront of the digital mining enterprise and will quickly capture and dominate market share.

The cumulative impact of these challenges cannot be underestimated.  IT and digitalisation can address these challenges with a range of solutions. Cloud computing is set to be a major driver of growth in the mining industry, which is very competitive and deals with fixed resources. Mining organisations that adopt cloud technology look forward to vast improvements in operations and well as major returns on investments. Not only are cloud technologies reliable, but they also allow these businesses to avoid huge investments by only paying for required infrastructure. The uptake of cloud computing across African mining companies has been positive, and is expected to continue growing.

Safety is a key concern, with significant investments being made every year on products and services designed to keep miners safe. IT can assist in improving the security and safety of miners, by tracking and following up on environmental parameters. For example, eHealth and telemedicine technologies mean that specialists could properly and timeously react to accidents, even in remote locations, as they have quick access to mining patients’ information. .

Advanced virtual technologies also have a role to play in aiding the mining industry. Take for example the advanced visualisation technology by the Cyest Corporation, whereby visualisations were used to simulate scenarios that can produce life-saving improvements in the mining industry.

There is a plethora of opportunities for innovation in the mining industry, and a number of proven technologies used in other industries that can be deployed. All in all, technology is offering mining companies the opportunity to connect all their staff, improve safety and security, drive down costs, and improve productivity and reactivity. It is important that those businesses operating within the industry are aware of the benefits, and are addressing their business plans and strategies to include these kinds of technological advancements – or risk being left behind, or worse, risk being even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

By Jean Granger, Global Account Director, Orange Business Services.