The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a unique set of challenges within the mining industry and the rest of the world, writes Dr Nombasa Tsengwa, Managing Director: Minerals at Exxaro Resources.

Aspects of our daily lives, as well as the global economy, have all been forced to undergo significant changes to keep up with the pandemic. The opportunity presented to businesses by the pandemic, in many cases, has been the push needed to drive pace over perfection when it comes to technology testing and adoption.

Exxaro’s migration from mechanised mining to automation began long before COVID-19; the pandemic has accelerated the pace of our digital transformation journey, but it’s something we have prioritised for a while.

Our Belfast mine is digital and connected, using data science, automation, and connected workers to increase throughput, streamline operational costs, and promote innovation and sustainability. We’ve rapidly deployed “the new way of working” – which is digital – leading to reimagined business models and enabling remote work.

South Africa’s world-class mining industry can generate additional wealth and create new employment opportunities on a large scale. As the pandemic continues and vaccination programmes are being implemented in some countries, we must not lose momentum from this accelerated digital transformation. Technology and automation can help us increase productivity, safeguard our workforce, decrease costs, and help fight climate change, thus contributing to South Africa’s economy.

An obvious strategic step for Africa’s mining companies is to now focus on technological advancements that promote workplace safety, reducing the risk of health and safety incidents. New technology has had to be implemented and fast-tracked to adapt operations and processes to evolving conditions; this includes the detection and pre-screening of COVID-19 to keep the mines and surrounding communities safer.

Health and safety risks can be alleviated not only through improved health and sanitisation systems, but by the business’ ability to move operations online to a cloud-based platform, making it easier to continue operations anytime and anywhere. Enhanced business practices also help to identify areas of concern that need to be addressed and allow for immediate intervention – a critical component in ensuring business continuity.

This means that when the next COVID-19-type event occurs, mining companies would be less affected, as operations can continue remotely, with employees separated by a healthy distance or by screens.

Ensuring Africa’s mining sector does not fall behind

Internationally, automation and tech are being embraced in the mining sector as “Mine 4.0” is adopted. We must ensure that Africa’s mining sector keeps up with this digital transformation, otherwise, we will not be able to compete when it comes to pricing or productivity.

Labour and the mining industry need to work together to establish a way forward that preserves health and safety, increases productivity, and has the best interests of mining communities at its centre. Both labour and industry should consider how to accelerate implementation of automation and remote operations, which could have mitigated the closure of operations of some mines as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Operating machinery remotely is physical distancing at its most extreme, as it ensures that employees can work away from their colleagues and away from areas where they are most at risk. If industry and labour work together to retrain and upskill labour for these new technologies where possible, it will benefit all stakeholders – employees, businesses, communities, and our country.

The choices made by mining companies need to be beneficial to the long-term outlook of the business. We are responsible for deploying these new technologies in a socially responsible manner while remaining mindful of potential ethical issues that may arise as a result, like unemployment, wealth distribution, and the unintended invasive potential of connected gadgets.

Due to the size of the industry and the nature of the business, making the necessary changes to facilitate choices and changes like digital transformation requires a hefty investment.

These investments often involve financial assistance with extended repayment periods, making rapid changes difficult to adapt to as businesses need to consider the long-term cost implications. Businesses can mitigate financial risks by using scenario modelling; looking at controllable uncertainties for demand and supply and the triggers affecting revenue and cost; and formulating response plans that consider the capital expenditures these plans require.

Once the decision has been made to invest in new and innovative technologies, business will be able to reap the benefits of a hyperconnected world.

With an exceptional minerals endowment, the South African mining industry has the potential to supply more commodities to world markets, if we can harness tech and automation.

Economic transformation and the environment

Research shows that environmental damage is lower in low-income countries, however, as incomes begin to rise, so does the potential for environmental damage. As industries grow and develop, they begin to have a more damaging effect on our environment.

Finding ways to develop industries in an environmentally friendly manner needs to become a priority and, as such, investment needs to be made in green technology. The Paris Agreement seeks to promote sustainable economic development and growth while actively finding ways to reduce the impact of global warming. Exxaro is committed to doing our part in reducing our carbon footprint and fighting global warming, which is why one of our goals is to be carbon neutral by 2050. On our journey to sustainability, we’ve found that embracing new, green technologies is key to achieving these goals.

Creating a safer environment for employees and surrounding communities

Tech and automation can also help safeguard the health and wellbeing of communities. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has implemented stricter health and safety protocols to protect employees and stakeholders. Technology has been leveraged to set up pre-screening measures, contact tracing, and even smart PPE. In this way, mining businesses are shaping healthier workplace behaviours that should continue long after the pandemic.

The pandemic and the threat of climate change have shown us that the African economy cannot grow and develop without proper investment into new technologies – that is true for the mining sector, and all other sectors of the economy too. This will require an ongoing commitment from both the public and private sectors to ensure that Africa is not left behind when the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes place.

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