Harnessing Technological evolution in the ASM sector for increased productivity and sustainability


Compiled by Paul Matshona and Joshua Y. Machinga-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association


Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is an indispensable sector in many developing countries. In Zimbabwe, the sector contributes to a broad-based development of the economy, contributing more than 60% of export receipts, more than 13% to GDP direct investment into the country[1]. The ASM sector is a source of livelihood and has seen a major growth from the year 2013 to 2019.[2] In 2019 the Artisanal and Small-Scale miners contributed 17,478 tonnes (compared to 10,181 for primary producers), which is about 60% of the total gold deliverables of 27.66 tonnes recorded by the Fidelity Printers and Refineries (FPR)[3]. Given these figures, gold mining in the country may be used as a basis to culminate economic meltdown and promote sustainable economic development. In line with the African Mining Vision (AMV), which emphasises value addition, research, and technological information[4], the figures substantiate calls for development-oriented mineral policies which include instruments to increase value addition. It becomes imperative for the mining sector to evolve as the world industry evolve taking advantage of technological advancement, that would eliminate the risk of operating at a very high cost.

The artisanal and small-scale mining sector is mostly entrenched in a poverty trap or cycle. This cyclic nature of the operation is attributed to failure to adopt and change as the mining sector changes. The ASM sector players still use rudimentary methods and technologies that are archaic, the same drawbacks bring progress of the sector down. The hammer mill is currently being used by the sector to liberate the gold from the rock, it is apparent that recoveries form this technology is low. A ball mill is an alternative and promotes safer, higher productivity liberation. The equipment may be automated to optimise residence time, promote safety, higher productivity and promote sustainability in the mining sector.

Mining 4.0 – The dawn of intelligent mining    

Steadily, the mining industry is getting closer to the visions of Industry 4.0, with digitalization in the mining industry central to increased productivity and at the same time creating good working environment. The Mining 4.0 advances technology use for improved anticipation of failures, supports human skills and increases situational awareness through sensors keeping an uninterrupted operational vigilance, thus improving workplace environments. Considering that mining industry is highly variable (uncertainty about the nature of the resource being mined), Mining 4.0 harnesses the flow of information to reduce variability in decision making and by deploying more centralized, mechanized operations to reduce variability in execution (which at times results from human error) and increases productivity. Mining 4.0 also increases understanding of resource base, which for long has been hindering the realisation of ASM’s full potential.

Future smart mining envisioned for ASM sector- Digitalisation, technology, and sustainability.

Digitalisation in mining refers to the use of computerised or digital devices or systems and digitised data to reduce costs, improve productivity, and transform mining practices. The ASM sector needs to evolve with the industry to remain afloat and solve the daring challenges that are within the sector. One of the challenges in the ASM sector is unavailability of technical knowledge. Future smart mining presents avenues for expert systems development, which may be used to augment the operations of the artisanal miners by providing specialised skills through chatbots, or decision system that are powered by artificial intelligence. This may even augment the abilities of People with Disability (PWDs) to be effective mine operators. Women may also employ smart technologies where there is a need for muscular power to perm operations in their watch. This help promote an inclusive industry where everyone is empowered. Major constraints in the ASM sector is unavailability of geological information and knowledge, digitalisation may assist during mineral exploration from method selection to effectively picking the deposits of interest. The data driven systems may be used to locate mineral deposits precisely, minimising the inherent uncertainty that is associated with prevailing exploration methods.

In the ASM sector the biggest challenge is to manage environmental degradation and maximising production and recoveries. Technology in mining enables recovery with minimum liberations tools such as crushers and mills. Implementation of technology will help unlock the metal content with relatively less water, less energy and with the ability to separate the mineral from gangue. Technology may help improve recovery and reduce the amounts that are lost into the tailings due to the prevailing poor technology. Adoption of smart processing methods will help unlock potential and exploitation of even very low-grade ores in the ASM sector. Technology and digitalisation help drive overall sustainability of the ASM sector, environmental sustainability in terms of energy, water, and biodiversity. This will help create thriving communities beyond the mining operations’ lifespan.

Preparing the ASM sector through Advanced IT

The ZELA team has developed an Envirobot[5] to promote information dissemination by taking advantage of technology advancement in the way we communicate[6]. The EnviroBot is embedded on WhatsApp and is there to increases access to environmental justice by mineral hosts communities in Zimbabwe. In addition to this, spatial technology is advancing the sector. Spatial data represents on the surface of the earth through numerical values in the geographic coordinate system. In the ASM sector, ZELA has managed to develop a spatial map for artisanal miners. Not only does this give the stakeholders in the sector of who is mining where, it also gives the ability to monitor mining activities from an environmental perspective[7].

Advocating for the mining workforce and communities of the future

In the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, the future of work is expected to change from what it is today. Automation, analytics, and artificial intelligence will not simply transfer work between humans and machines. They will also generate greater insights into employee productivity and efficiency. In that respect the sector will generate advocacy stand points, this bring in the question of what will be good natural governance in the future; what sort of policies need to be developed for such a mining environment and will every community member be involved in natural resources exploitation or the major population will be marginalised? These questions call for civil society organisations to start imagining a future smart mining in relation to natural resource governance.

However, though adoption of technology in the sector has benefits, technology adoption has its perceived risks that cannot be ignored. There is sentiment that adoption of mining technologies limit reduce employment. Employment statue is always reserved in the new dynamics. For instance, introduction of remote-controlled equipment in the ASM sector, would mean ASMers reduced labour force. There is also change management required to properly integrating new technologies, the need to adapt to the new technologies and develop capacities in the new spaces.

Nevertheless, harnessing technological evolution in the ASM sector is critical for increased productivity and sustainability.

[1] https://www.devere-zimbabwe.co.zw/news/mineral-exports-expected-to-surge-in-2019

[2] https://www.pactworld.org/library/contribution-artisanal-and-small-scale-gold-mining-zimbabwe%E2%80%99s-economic-growth-and

[3] https://www.rbz.co.zw/documents/mps/Monetary-Policy-Statement-17-February-2020.pdf

[4] http://www.africaminingvision.org/amv_resources/AMV/Africa_Mining_Vision_English.pdf

[5] Envirobot is an innovative platform the organization (ZELA) developed to facilitates a two-way communication between the user and the application operator. The application is embedded on WhatsApp and has various communication option such as case reporting and tracking, environmental rights awareness, news dissemination and interfaces between ZELA and the community/product user.

[6] http://www.zela.org/leveraging-on-innovation-to-enhance-environmental-justice-envirobot/

[7] https://www.ipisresearch.be/mapping/webmapping/zwe_mines_zela/

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