Prof Fred Cawood, director, Wits Mining Institute, discusses how technology and training can develop the next generation of leadership; building the people who must build Africa – including entrenching in them a value system for responsible and inclusive growth.
Prof Cawood, how will technology change the mining industry in Africa in the next five to ten years?
Ten years ago, the mining industry still questioned the value proposition of technology investments. Since then, mining companies have adopted technology on a grand scale – to the point where one can ask: “How will the mining industry change technology in the next five to ten years?”
In the past, companies shopped around for existing technology solutions, which often did not help much; now, they are insisting that technology companies supply them with real solutions that will solve specific problems. Technology companies who cannot respond to site-specific requests will soon find themselves out of business.
What does Wits University do to address the challenges that the future presents?
Across the globe, a range of technological, social, economic and environmental changes are affecting how, what, when and where we mine. Technology interventions will help, but this will increase rather than replace the need for well-educated and ‘rounded’ professionals.
One of the biggest challenges in Africa for the mining industry is a lack of the necessary skills in the countries of operation. How can Wits in particular, and universities in general, contribute to improve the mining skills on the continent, and what role will technology play in the process?
Universities are key providers of human capital. At Wits, our qualifications, offerings and approaches to teaching are constantly being reviewed, revised and transformed to address the needs of a 21st century industry and society more broadly. Our first objective is to develop the next generation of leadership; so, we build the people who must build Africa, and this includes entrenching in them a value system for responsible and inclusive growth.
Our second objective is more applied – or service-related. Here, we identify shortcomings in our existing offerings and then fill the gap through skills training by short courses or problem-solving, commissioned research.
What research, that is of interest to the mining industry in Africa, is currently being carried out at the university and what potential impacts will this research have on the future of mining in Africa?
Research we are currently engaged in includes the use of microwaves to weaken rock and accelerate the cutting process; mine health and safety; digital mining; the impacts of climate change, and how to mitigate and adapt to it; and geo-engineering, including the use of olivine-rich waste rock (kimberlite, for example) to achieve negative carbon emissions.
We are also researching Big Data and the application of quantum computing to mining, and arrange ‘hackathons’ to re-imagine complex issues in mining. Topics include: the innovative use of machine learning in ore grade estimation; the application of Blockchain technologies to verify processes, such as the traceability of materials in supply chains; cyber-resilience in the face of malicious and accidental failures of cyber security; and holistic, inter-disciplinary approaches to technology-human interaction issues.
Is automation and mechanisation the answer to Africa’s high unemployment figures, and how will the mechanisation of new mines improve the safety aspects in especially underground mines?
Mine modernisation on its own is not the solution to Africa’s high unemployment, but it is the solution to keeping mines going safely and protecting some of the jobs that would be lost in a scenario where we do not advance our mining methods. The coal sector showed us comprehensively that there are significant underground safety improvements for mines investing in mechanised equipment.
During the process of mine modernisation new problems and questions are arising, which presents opportunity for entrepreneurs who can use technology to answer some of these new questions. Technology lowered the capital barrier for new entrants – and this, is the value proposition for Africa’s youth.
What challenges, in terms of skills and training, will mining companies operating in Africa face within the next three years and how should they prepare in the short term?
This question speaks directly to the future of work in mining. The biggest short-term challenge for mining companies is to modernise their mines in a just way. With more technology in mining now a certainty, skills-for-jobs are what we need most. Going forward, we must re-imagine a new and equitable model for the division of labour in the Future of Work; this must define a new role for the fewer humans in the workplace and more digital assistants doing what humans traditionally did. This brings the issue of technology or robotics governance to the fore, which requires alignment of company and social value systems when we explore a new definition of what ‘human’ means and how far we are prepared to digitally and physically ‘enhance’ human beings for better performance in the workplace.
What is your outlook for the mining industry in 2020 and what trends can we expect to see in the next three years?
Mining is known for its boom and bust times. The early 2000s was a classic boom period, followed by a classic bust cycle in the decade that followed. Traditionally, South African mining followed international market cycles, but the political economy of the past seven years showed us that South Africa’s mining cycle is no longer in sync with the international cycles. Therefore, we saw hard times here while the rest of the world improved. The very recent mining company reports include some green shoots, which is good for 2020.
However, we will not see sustainable growth until improvements are visible in infrastructure reliability and affordability, regulatory certainty and the rule of law.
Strong trends in mining that will continue over the next three years include: a global search for new 21st century metals; a global push for technology-intensive mines of the future; a need for new skills-sets with retrenchment of vulnerable skills; rising resource nationalism; the rise of climate change as a growing, global concern that affects consumption patterns.
What role will universities like Wits play in the future of mining in Africa?
Firstly, universities must support better integration of education (at all levels), transformation and partnerships – aimed at supporting relevant teaching, learning and research. We also have to improve our understanding of competence and the role of qualifications to deliver competence in the workplace. Typical competencies for the 21st century will be to design, to create, to install, to maintain, to improve, and to lead.
Secondly, universities must realise that not everyone can take the academic route. When it is done right, vocational learning can result in highly qualified individuals who must be recognised in the formal system. This is the major threat to universities clinging to the old model in which a university education guaranteed a job.
Thirdly, we must do something about graduate unemployment. For example, with the support of Sibanye-Stillwater, Gold Fields and the Mine Health and Safety Council, we place graduates in a one to three year postgraduate programme where they receive a small income while they do postgraduate research on a 21st century mining (technology) topic. This improves their prospects of getting a job. We also give them exposure to real mining problems while they work under academic supervision withworkplace professionals. In this small initiative, about 25 graduatesare employed in this way. Imagine the impact if we did this at alluniversities across the country for all sectors of the economy.