Africa’s immense mineral wealth has long positioned it as a centrepiece in the global mining narrative. As we advance further into the era of smart and sustainable mining practices, a confluence of technological, environmental and societal factors demands a paradigm shift. In this thought leadership article, Wits Mining Institute director Professor Glen Nwaila focuses on key drivers reshaping Africa’s mining sector from lessons learned in academia and minerals industry leaders.

Historically, mining and earth sciences curricula have been intensive in specialisation, ensuring deep but narrow expertise. However, the modern era, characterised by interconnected challenges, necessitates a broader perspective. Transitioning to a transdisciplinary education means students will not only grasp the disciplines of mining, mineral processing and geology but also understand environmental science, technological implications, and even sociopolitical considerations.

Smart mining: redefining education in mining, metallurgy and earth sciences

In the bygone days of mining education, a student was sculpted into a siloed expert, proficient in the specifics of mineralogy, mining geology, process control, instrumentation, mine planning or a particular subset of earth sciences and mining engineering. Their training was exhaustive within the confines of their specialisation, but seldom did it encourage exploration outside these niches. The evolving landscape of the 21st century, marked by rapid technological advancements and environmental challenges, calls for a more encompassing approach to education in this realm.

Transdisciplinary approach now a necessity

Why exactly, then, is a broader perspective essential? The interconnected nature of today’s challenges necessitates that mining professionals can connect the dots between seemingly disparate domains. A geologist, for instance, should be able to understand not just the intricacies of rock formations but also the environmental repercussions of extracting minerals from them. A mining professional should be proficient in conventional extraction techniques and emerging technologies such as mechatronics and data analytics. The rise of geometallurgy, for example, also requires our students to understand the mineral value chain as a connected system, rather than a disjointed set of actions.

Main pillars of a transdisciplinary paradigm shift

Mechatronics is a proper degree in many universities today. In mining, it is no longer a futuristic concept, but is today’s reality. Integrating mechanical engineering with electronics and computer systems, mechatronics transforms mining into a highly precise, efficient and safer process. Robotic arms, automated vehicles and drone surveillance are all examples of mechatronics in action. Understanding these systems allows mining professionals to optimise operations, reduce human exposure to hazardous environments and enhance productivity. Tomorrow’s mines may be very deep, below the ocean, or in other hazardous locations. Mechatronics is becoming the solution to non-human-friendly spaces.

A mining professional should be proficient in conventional extraction techniques and emerging technologies. All images supplied Wits Mining Institute

A mining professional should be proficient in conventional extraction techniques and emerging technologies. All images supplied Wits Mining Institute

Data-driven decision-making is another domain that mining professionals cannot afford to ignore. The mining sector generates vast amounts of data daily – from daily blast data and geological surveys to equipment performance logs. Translating this data into actionable insights requires an understanding of data analytics. By embedding data science modules into mining curricula, students can be equipped to make informed decisions, predict machinery malfunctions and optimise resource allocation – leading to more efficient and sustainable operations.

Space technologies, though seemingly distant from earth sciences, have an important role. Satellite imagery can assist in remote sensing mineral deposits, while also making exploration less intrusive and more efficient. Additionally, advanced satellite communication systems can ensure seamless operations in remote mining sites, connecting them to global hubs in real-time. The African space industry is emerging and everything from mineral exploration to waste valorisation will benefit tremendously from this industry.

Beyond the technological realm, the mining professionals of tomorrow must also be environmental stewards and sociopolitical strategists. The emphasis on sustainable mining is not just an environmental prerogative but also a business one. Sustainable living is holistic and requires that we consider all actions in the context of greater systems, including the mineral value chain.

The consequences of ecological neglect can lead to impoverished regions, crop failure, disproportionate effects on poor communities, regulatory crackdowns, tarnished brand image and community pushbacks. Moreover, understanding the sociopolitical landscapes of mining regions is pivotal. Issues of land rights, indigenous community engagements and local governance play a significant role in the viability and longevity of mining operations.

The impetus for technological embrace

Africa stands at the cusp of technological innovation in mining due to our unique landscape, fortuitous mineral endowment, incredible natural resources of a non-mineral nature, and over three centuries of progressive mining experience. Digital technologies promise improved production efficiency, safety and democratisation, but their true potential lies in skillsets, mindset and culturally transformative aspects. We can create a mining workforce reflective of Africa’s rich tapestry by creating, adopting and embracing Afro-centric technology and diversity.

Ramifications for Africa’s labour-intensive mining industry

African mining has traditionally been a labour-intensive sector. It is an industry where manual labour has, for centuries, toiled under the sun and within the depths of the earth to extract valuable minerals. On the surface, being labour-intensive seems beneficial; it translates to job creation, which is paramount for a continent grappling with unemployment. However, the current global technological trajectory places this labour-intensive model at a crossroads.

Technological advancement’s double-edged sword

As Africa prepares for a technological revolution in mining, the implications are profound. Digital technologies, while promising operational efficiency and improved safety, inadvertently endanger traditional job structures. While beneficial, advances such as automation, AI-driven machinery and digital monitoring systems reduce the need for human intervention in many mining processes. This evolution can be viewed as a threat, especially in an industry where many workers may lack the skills to operate these new machines or navigate digitalised operational environments. It’s not merely about operating a new machine; it’s about understanding the digital interface, making real-time decisions based on data, and troubleshooting in an environment that’s a far cry from the traditional mining setup.

Rethinking the business model: skills, inclusion and retention

Rather than seeing technological advancement as an inevitable precursor to retrenchment, mining companies should pivot towards a model where technological embrace coexists with human capital enhancement.

Continuous skills development: For the existing workforce, comprehensive training programmes should be instituted – which not only train workers in operating modern machinery but also inculcate a digital-first mindset. From understanding basic software interfaces to advanced machinery troubleshooting, the aim should be to transform the traditional miner into a tech-savvy operative.

Wits Mining Institute director, Professor Glen Nwaila.

Wits Mining Institute director, Professor Glen Nwaila.

Inclusivity and diversity: Technology has the potential to level the playing field, but in Africa tech must be tailored to African contexts. The mining sector should seize this opportunity to promote a more inclusive workforce. By introducing digital tools and training, segments of the population previously sidelined in mining due to physical demands — such as women or the differently-abled — can be integrated more effectively.

Bridging generational knowledge gaps: The synergy between Generation Z and experienced miners is invaluable. While the younger generation brings in fresh perspectives, technological prowess and innovative thinking, the veterans offer wisdom, experience and nuanced understanding. Formal mentorship programmes, collaborative projects and cross-generational workshops can harness this synergy, ensuring that the digital transition does not come at the expense of hard-earned traditional knowledge – and that modernity is not displacing knowledge for its own sake.

Incentivising skill acquisition: Instead of the traditional pay-for-labour model, companies should explore a model where compensation is linked to skills and adaptability. This approach not only incentivises continuous learning but also ensures that the workforce is always at the forefront of technological trends. This promotes innovation, life-long learning and business agility. These traits are increasingly more important in a rapidly changing world.

Cybersecurity – act beyond proactivity

The proliferation of digital tools and data in mining amplifies the sector’s cyber vulnerability. This requires a dual-pronged approach. Firstly, a proactive cybersecurity framework must be established, emphasising regular audits, threat detection and preventive measures. Secondly, reactive strategies must be robust, ensuring minimal downtime and data loss during breaches. Regular training modules can instil a persistent culture of digital vigilance.

The age-old silos between Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) must be dismantled. IT, which traditionally governs data and computational aspects, needs to synergise with OT, the realm of machinery and on-ground operations. Seamless integration can lead to real-time data sharing, predictive analytics for machinery maintenance and agile decision-making. Joint workshops and collaborative projects can foster mutual respect and integration.

Companies should explore a model where compensation is linked to skills and adaptability.

Companies should explore a model where compensation is linked to skills and adaptability.

Companies should explore a model where compensation is linked to skills and adaptability.

Water: Elixir of sustainable mining

Water’s pivotal role in mining is being viewed through the lens of sustainability. With parts of Africa grappling with water stress, alternative technologies such as waterless mining technology, waterless dust suppression, dry stacking, non-aqueous mineral processing and advanced water recycling techniques have become imperative.

Critical minerals and renewable energy

The global clamour for renewable energy and climate change is not just a trend—it is a necessity. The monumental shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy signifies not just a change in power sources but a comprehensive transformation affecting job markets, skill requirements and socio-economic landscapes. As the mining sector heeds this call for change, the implications stretch far beyond simply updating energy sources. It heralds the emergence of a new workforce dynamic and necessitates a renewed emphasis on skilling and re-skilling, particularly in Africa’s robust mining sector.

Understanding the energy shift: A dual facet

Embracing renewable energy sources: As the mining sector looks to decarbonise, operations are transitioning from traditional fossil fuels towards solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric sources. This does not merely involve erecting solar panels or wind turbines. It encompasses designing renewable energy infrastructures, managing them, maintaining them and understanding their integration within the larger grid. Such roles demand expertise in renewable energy technologies, systems management and grid integration. Much of Africa is at a stage where energy delivery is a bottleneck. It must be addressed before broader action in the change of energy mixture can occur.

Mining for the future – critical minerals: The world’s hunger for technology, especially for green technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, has sent the demand for ‘new-age’ minerals sky-rocketing. Minerals such as lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements have suddenly become indispensable. Extracting and processing these minerals entails specialised techniques, safety protocols and environmental considerations. Traditional miners need to be equipped with knowledge and skills tailored to these critical minerals.

The Wits Mining Institute is advocating rethinking skills development to bridge the talent gap.

The Wits Mining Institute is advocating rethinking skills development to bridge the talent gap.


While the younger generation brings in fresh perspectives, technological prowess and innovative thinking, the veterans offer wisdom, experience and nuanced understanding.

While the younger generation brings in fresh perspectives, technological prowess and innovative thinking, the veterans offer wisdom, experience and nuanced understanding.

Jobs, skills and the equitable transition

The renewable shift is not without its challenges. Central to these is the potential displacement of workers, particularly those in coal and conventional mining operations. However, instead of viewing this as an impending crisis, it should be approached as an opportunity for growth, upskilling and diversification.

From coal mines to solar farms: While the skills required for coal mining and managing a solar farm might seem poles apart, there’s a significant overlap. Project management, system maintenance, safety protocols and infrastructure development are common to both. By emphasising transferrable skills and providing targeted training, coal miners can seamlessly transition to roles in renewable energy sectors, but this requires systematic skills and cultural change.

Upskilling for “new” critical minerals: The surge in demand for critical minerals necessitates specialised training programmes. Miners must be adept at identifying these minerals, understanding their properties and employing sustainable extraction techniques. Additionally, they should be well-versed in the environmental repercussions associated with mining these minerals and the best practices to mitigate potential impacts.

Equity in transition: The shift to renewables should be rooted in justice and equity, which is especially important for Africans, as collectively we have not benefitted from energy and technology as much as the Global North. It is imperative to ensure that as the industry evolves, opportunities are accessible to Africans, regardless of their previous roles or experience in the sector. This requires a collaborative approach, bringing together governments, industry leaders, educational institutions and communities to create a framework that champions inclusivity, equity and growth.

Promise of the digital twin of the mineral value chain

A digital twin for the supply of metals is more than just a technological marvel — it is a testament to ethical mining. Stakeholders can ensure responsible sourcing by maintaining a digital ledger tracing a mineral’s journey from extraction to market. Such a system enhances transparency, ensuring that minerals are not sourced from conflict zones and that environmental and labour standards are upheld.


The African mining industry, replete with abundant mineral resources and burgeoning potential, is poised for a transformative era. Encompassing a rich tapestry of minerals, from platinum group metals to cobalt and rare earth elements, the continent offers a treasure trove of opportunities for both local and international investors. As governments increasingly focus on implementing investor-friendly policies, enhancing infrastructural development and promoting sustainable mining practices, the industry is anticipated to witness considerable growth.

However, to fully harness its potential and ensure inclusive economic benefits, it is imperative for stakeholders to address challenges such as cultural clashes, political instability, regulatory inconsistencies and environmental concerns. In the coming years, with the right balance of innovation, collaboration and responsible governance, Africa’s mining sector can indeed be a cornerstone for the continent’s economic ascendancy and a major geopolitical player for primary production and downstream beneficiation of critical minerals.