How Can the Mining Sector in Africa Navigate the Unstable Landscape of COVID-19?

Ralph Heath

Managing Director

Despite COVID-19, mining in Africa will continue, but how can productivity and efficiency be maintained in the current complicated circumstances of travel restrictions, lockdowns and important changes to health and safety management? What can consultants do to help?

While commodities are volatile globally, mining in Africa is reasonably stable due to gold, coal and iron ore continuing to be both essential and lucrative during these uncertain economic times. Reductions in productivity will see mining businesses lose the opportunity to capitalize on these trading conditions. But opportunity lies in most crisis situations, so innovative and nimble solutions can arise from these challenges, creating potential revenue streams and paths forward for both for clients and consultants. This is the time for all of us to be creative!

What does COVID-19 mean for consultants?

As engineering and environmental consultants, we understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our traditional models of servicing mining clients in remote parts of Africa. Due to travel restrictions and lockdowns, most mining sites can only be accessed by local staff. This is a major change to our standard practice of easily travelling throughout Africa to support mining clients – and with no end to the pandemic nor a vaccine in sight, we can’t simply wait for things to return to ‘normal’. So, what can we do?

Be leaders in health and safety

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a whole new focus on health and safety for all industries as they seek to protect the health of their workforce and minimize disruption to operations. Of course, in the mining sector, health and safety has always been paramount, but COVID-19 brings new risks, new expectations, and the need to rapidly implement changes to existing procedures and practices to protect thousands of workers in close conditions. Physical distancing, temperature screening, increased sanitation and quarantine requirements are new ground for everyone. There is an opportunity here to advance our role as trusted and valuable partners who understand the requirements for health and safety.

When and where we can physically access sites, we must not only be compliant but lead with robust health and safety plans so that our clients can trust us to not put their workers and operations at risk. They must be confident that we can do our job safely.

Be innovative and flexible

With air travel and site accessibility restricted for at least the near future, consultants must innovate and take a flexible approach to proposals and delivery. The digital era is well and truly upon us, so this is the time to embrace technologies and new developments and stretch their limitations as far as they can go. Creative thinking will unlock new ways that data can be collected by a clients’ employees in the field, preferably digitally, and communicated back (possibly even in real time) for review, analysis and reporting.

Consider just a few of the options we are already beginning to apply:

  • Using ‘eyes in the sky’ to replace ‘boots on the ground’ by using webcams or drones, aerial surveys, or satellite data to capture and relay information
  • Recommending new processes for improvements in data collection, monitoring and big data management
  • Advancing uptake of automation to future-proof our clients’ businesses for greater productivity and resilience

There is so much opportunity here not only to embrace new approaches to our own consulting work, but also to advise and empower our clients to rethink and upgrade their own methods and technologies.

Be available and accessible

For consultants, our client relationships are vital to our survival, so we must stay close, connected, and responsive. In these times, we must be available and accessible when we’re needed (yes, boundaries have become blurred), even if we’re not physically on site. Much of this can be managed via phone and internet, particularly through video communications, but some in-person interactions just can’t be easily replicated digitally.

Proactively discussing our clients’ communication and availability expectations up front arms us with the understanding we need to navigate the possibilities for meeting those expectations through alternative mechanisms. Creative resourcing strategies opens up the opportunity to deploy local staff, appoint new staff locally, or explore opportunities for partnerships or alliances with local consultants who are able to be physically present. As always, these resources must be appropriately skilled, mentored and empowered to innovate and optimize results.

Leverage partnerships and alliances

One of the most productive and effective ways to enable us to continue to support clients, maintain productivity and minimize risks during the pandemic is through partnerships and alliances. Travel limitations and compulsory quarantine periods will be an imperative for a long time yet, so working with partners who have a local presence or ease of access to our clients’ sites will benefit all parties. ‘We’re all in this together’ might sound like a cliché, but it really is at the core of navigating these challenging and uncertain times.

Healthy partnerships don’t happen by accident. It’s vital that partnerships are mutually beneficial and complementary – but such partnerships need to be actively built, owned and maintained. The way that these relationships are established and nurtured will make a major difference. For example, consider priority contracts, dedicated relationship managers, online training and skills sharing (such as through webinars), secondments (when travel is possible) and mentorship. Ultimately, treat these relationships with the same care and respect as if they were part of your own operation.

With such relationships already in place, new opportunities for projects can be grasped quickly and delivered effectively to the satisfaction and benefit of all parties. Collaboration, rather than competition, will be good for us, our partners, our clients, and their communities. In the search for COVID-proof business models, partnerships and alliances may be one of the most effective and easily implementable solutions to enable us to continue to leverage potential revenue streams while minimizing risk and building resilience.

Finding a path to stability, let alone to growth, will not be easy for our clients or for our industry, but now is not the time to be conservative. Businesses must adapt and innovate – and crisis is a fertile medium for change. The businesses that will not only survive but also reap enduring rewards will be those that are agile, adapting to the shifting landscape and demonstrating genuine commitment to the progress, productivity and resilience of the industry and the well-being of their partners and communities.

Ralph Heath

Managing Director

About the Author

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