December 2015

Development of sustainable social licences in West Africa – a work in progress

  • By Peter K Williams, Centre for Exploration Targeting, University of Western Australia; Dr Mark W Jessell, Centre for Exploration Targeting, University of Western Australia and Laboratoire GET, Université Toulouse; Dr David Baratoux, Laboratoire GET, Université Toulouse and Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar; Dr Morou Francois Ouedraogo, Teng–Tuuma Geoservices, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso ; Simon Bolster, Exploration Manager, Gryphon Minerals

An overview of opportunities for minerals professionals and communities in West Africa

Nearly 25 per cent of Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now derived from the extractive resources. Between 2000 and 2008 alone, the value created from natural resources in Africa rose from $39.2 billion to $240 billion. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, 24 rely on relatively few mineral products to generate more than 75 per cent of their export earnings (African Development Bank, 2012). The African continent contributed 6.5 per cent of the world’s mineral exports during 2011 from mining 20 per cent of the world’s land. Australian companies have a significant and widespread presence in Africa (Figure 1).


Central and West Arica are increasingly being seen as boom areas for iron ore exploration and mining. Gold exploration and mining is also well-known throughout the area. The area is seeing a significant increase in railway construction in order to transport ore and goods to/from ports and this has led to the opening of mines in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) exported US$150 billion worth of goods during 2011.

Within the West African sub-region, the economies of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Togo and Sierra Leone are dependent on their sub-surface resources. Their socio-economic indicators are critically dependent on the application of up-to-date knowledge in the earth sciences at the pre-tertiary (vocational), tertiary and post tertiary level (Janneh and Ping, 2011). At all levels there is a great need to develop the minerals-related skills of the local people, and use these skills to develop new businesses that provide employment and which eventually allow the new professionals to gain far greater benefit from the natural resources in their country.

However, there are other aspects of Africa’s natural resources that are of concern (Gnacadja, 2013). Virtually the entire continent is or will soon be facing critical shortfalls in potable water. Despite the world meeting its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water five years ahead of the 2015 deadline, 11 percent of the world’s population still live without access to safe drinking water – 40 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The active management of arable land is critical as the demand for food security grows, and as deserts expand or shift and the climate changes. There is an urgent need to develop applicable agricultural studies that focus on water and food crop security and sustainability, which in turn demands for technical excellence in regolith and soil sciences and hydrogeology. These links between natural resource management are still in their infancy but are becoming increasingly critical in sub-Saharan Africa, and strongly suggest a more sustainable, and less siloed approach is needed that acknowledges and addresses these issues for the local populations and stakeholders.


There is a continuing debate amongst companies, government, academics and the broader communities within which exploration and mining companies work about the concept of social licence and sustainable development (Bice, 2014). The extractive sector is expected (by such Institutions as the African Union) to play a catalytic (but not sole) role for the sustainability of the African communities in which they operate, and the African Minerals Development Centre has developed a strategy and action plan to achieve that vision (Figure 2).


There is a broad agreement that sustainability activities should address the following major themes:

  • people
  • safety
  • environment (including food and
    water security)
  • integrity.

Education and vocational training

Universally it is recognised that education is one of the most important foundations to building a more sustainable and equitable world. This is particularly so in times of crisis and rapid change, such as those encountered today. When a mine is discovered in an area, that area and the local community are subject to rapid changes. The community and their prior generations have most likely been inhabiting the area for hundreds if not thousands of years. A typical mine life is of the order of 20 years, barely a generation in human terms, but a tremendous opportunity not to be wasted.

One of the major issues facing mineral exploration and mining companies in West Africa is a lack of suitably skilled and experienced local people to provide the work force (Janneh and Ping 2011; KPMG, 2015). The result of this lack of skills and education has been:

  • Importation of expats to provide critical decision making capability. This is expensive and typically operates on a fly-in fly-out basis. This adds expense to the projects, and a difficult to quantify level of risk due to management discontinuities. Furthermore, Some expats with suitable technical education and experience have been shown to be personally poorly positioned in terms of personal attributes, attitudes and general trust building with local communities.
  • Importation of professionals from other African countries which have reasonable vocational and university training (eg Nigeria, Ghana). Again this
    is more expensive, less permanent arrangement (with fly-in fly-out and language and cultural barriers and tensions).

There is also an increase in project risk with this approach, as there is often a concomitant build-up of resentment from local professionals and local communities if employment is not forthcoming.

Many of the skills acquired in the exploration stage are useful in the mining stage. In exploration, there is always a need to get local help for labour, geographical guidance and logistics as well as local linguistics and appreciation of cultural differences. The act of employing (and terminating) local staff always has to be done in a manner which preserves the dignity of local peoples and local chiefs. The exploration stage creates the first impressions with the community, which can be lasting.

In one mineral development project the employment was done in a manner which did not respect local traditional boundaries, and so a workforce employed from one village became very unpopular when they transgressed into another village’s area, leading to a standoff, and a long standing lack of trust. In another mineral development project, when the project work needed to be slowed down due to commodity price drops, a company made the decision to cut its local work force by 80 per cent, and did so on the basis of their perception of a person’s utility without discussion with the local chiefs and mayors. The chiefs simply wanted to give priority to persons who had social responsibilities, such as families. Timely structured consultation would have avoided what became a stand-off, and the chiefs withdrawing or hindering site access for the company’s employees for a period of about six months.

To avoid such conflicts, we have outlined a range of different approaches below.

Professional education

For the issues that stem from a lack of local professional people of sufficient training and experience, we recognise a long standing need for all countries to have access to a significantly enhanced education infrastructure and capability. This education is delivered at a national level, and can be purely from enhancement of the local university capacity, or from new public-private partnerships (PPPs), and even broader partnerships between PPPs and professional societies, be they in geosciences, geology, mining or metallurgy (Varghese, 2006).

The West African Exploration Initiative (WAXI) Project is an example of a transnational PPP. It was initiated in 2007 with the aid of the AMIRA Organisation, and is still current. It involves collaboration between a number of research or teaching institutions and many junior, mid-sized and major mining companies as well as government geological surveys or mines departments.

The WAXI Project has achieved the following outcomes:

  • facilitated 6 PhD doctorates, 5 masters degrees, 5 undergraduate degrees, plus 16 new African PhD/MScs started in the past 12 months
  • delivered 13 workshops to a total of more than 200 African university, government geological survey and company personnel
  • geologically mapped 250 000 km2 of West Africa and delivered that data to the respective partner groups, including geological surveys in GIS ready format
  • convened two international conferences (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2007; and Dakar, Senegal in 2015)
  • convened annual one day forums for information exchange, setting of priorities, and provided input into future project definition for the West African Geological Surveys
  • created, maintained and expanded a 300 Gb GIS database, which includes updated and historical maps, satellite/geophysical/geochemical data sets and is updated annually and provided to geological survey and university partners
  • published over 60 new refereed papers in international journals
  • Initiated the Geology Open On-Line Courses – West Africa (GEOLOOC-WA), project, dedicated to the design of online teaching material in geoscience to support academic staff in West African Universities.

The WAXI workshops are being complimented by a suite of programs that have been organised in conjunction with private NGO-based educators where appropriate and available, such as Teng Tuuma Geoservices (TTGEO) in Burkina Faso. TTGEO has built modern state of the art education facilities in Ouagadougou. The facility is equipped with extensive modern audio-visual material and provides high-speed broadband internet access. It has hosted several workshops which have been in turn sponsored by a raft of institutions including UNESCO and AUSAID.

Non-professional education – Vactrain

For the issues that stem from a lack of non-professional people we are actively investigating extending the vocational training and skills development programs aimed at creating geoscience technicians in Australia. The Diploma of Applied Geosciences (TAFESA 1) is designed to provide its graduates with skills and knowledge to enable them to work as geoscience technicians, drill-based technicians, data processing technicians, or technical field officers – either in the field or in office situations in minerals exploration.

The contents of these courses can be rapidly adapted to be suitable for teaching local community members key skills, as well as city-based people who
want employment in the mining resource industry.

Other courses are available which are more designed for the mining sector, such as the Certificate II in Surface Extraction Operations (TAFESA 2). This qualification reflects the role of individuals working as operators on sites such as an open cut coal mine, a quarry or an open cut metalliferous mine, undertaking a prescribed range of tasks involving known routines and procedures, and taking some responsibility for the quality of
work outcomes.

The courses can be delivered with the assistance of the internet and envisaged special learning centres (Eden centres), sited in key locations throughout Africa. The courses could also be modified to be provided through tablets as is now being done in primary and secondary education programs in Africa (O’Sullivan, 2015; Pitchford, 2015). The course would retain a significant ‘hands on’ challenge based component requiring input from an expert trainer. The local trainers could be trained and provided through an NGO such as TTGEO. Courses can be credited depending on needs and it is also possible to have credit transfer for some or all of the courses, as is done in South Australia.

Optimising land use and the general use of non-mining natural assets

For any mining company, the first task coming into a new project is to inspire and progressively build trust between themselves and the local population. As always, first impressions can be lasting impressions and trust should always be developed and maintained as early as possible. Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Character includes a company’s integrity, motive, and intent with people (Covey and Merrill, 2008). Competence includes a company’s capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both dimensions are vital. The longer and more consistent the track record, the stronger the trust. It could be argued that the earlier the building of trust occurs in the life of the mine, the greater chance of success, and less chance of disruptions in the later mine development process.

Recent examples of early stage/first impressions, and trust building include:

  • In 2000, a mining company in northern Burkina Faso noted a resistivity low recorded in an Induced Polarisation Survey completed for gold exploration. This occurred in a geological setting which had a high potential to be sourced by ground water. Local people were informed, and this led to them digging several water wells, which confirmed the presence of shallow potable water. The new water source was within 500 meters of a local village, in which the women previously had walked several kilometres to get water.
  • In late 2007 a junior exploration company  provided immediate relief in the form of blankets, mattresses and food to alleviate the effects of once-in-a-decade extensive flooding in their project in eastern Burkina Faso. The help was provided prior to the start of exploration by any of the company’s personnel.

Both companies have enjoyed excellent unhindered mutually beneficial relationships with local communities ever since.

Data sharing and collaboration

Gryphon Minerals (and most exploration companies) routinely use new high-resolution satellite imagery, as well as older poorer resolution data and digital elevation models, to construct a map of the regolith (ie everything between fresh rock and fresh air). The map of the regolith is in turn used to define optimal geochemical sampling strategies to discover gold or other minerals of interest with the exploration permits. These maps and sampling strategies are often developed over areas ranging from 50 to 500 square kilometres around a prospective target area. A mine discovered from such a process would likely cover of the order of less than ten square kilometres.

The same exploration satellite data sets can be used to rapidly and effectively construct important maps of past, present and future land use, an analysis formally known as land evaluation. In addition they can serve as valuable quantitative benchmarks, against which future activities are measured.

Mining companies could develop a far greater social licence by sharing earth mapping (satellite) data sets with local populations around and within a mining project at an early stage of project development (exploration), and hence again build up greater trust and understanding of the environment.

A collaborative Research Project between Gryphon Minerals and the WAITE Research Institute (University of Adelaide, see has been initiated in Gryphon’s Banfora Project in south-west Burkina Faso. This project investigates the utility of the new generation of high spectral and spatial resolution satellite imagery in evaluating past, current and future possible land use, including agriculture. 

The outcomes from the project are envisaged to be:

  • Using the land use data to develop a strategy and educational program for the local people detailing how they can develop their farming, which maybe alternative to what they do, and may produce for example better health, improve soil fertility, obtain better yield, better income, etc.
  • A set of maps, which the local population can access in paper form or in tablets (with GPS feed) which they can take into their field and traverse their fields to see how the maps and plans relate one on one to the ground surface. The tablets could have instructive apps that provide more details on farming and agriculture,  how the farm and agriculture products impact on their health, etc.

Summary and conclusions

The chosen examples illustrate how important benefits may be delivered to the broader and local society from the exploration and mining companies in West Africa in the area of training and higher education. The projects that have been described are relatively inexpensive, and participate to a sustainable building of trust between the local society and international mining companies. The examples also suggest ways which the mining communities and the local communities can share information, and in so doing build a better understanding of how best to manage the natural environment to create better and more sustainable outcomes for all.


We would like to thank AMIRA and the group of mining companies which have supported WAXI over the many years. We would also like to thank the many African researchers and their respective academic institutions, who have assisted in making the WAXI Project what it is today. We would also like to acknowledge the support of Gryphon Minerals, and Simon Bolster in particular for initiating and assisting in setting up of the ‘Data sharing’ project. 


African Development Bank, 2012.

Bice S, 2013. What Gives You a Social Licence? An Exploration of the Social Licence to Operate in the Australian Mining Industry, Resources, 3, pp 62-80; doi:10.3390

Covey S M R and R R Merrill, 2008. The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, Free Press.

Gnacadja L, 2013. Land Degradation: The Hidden Face of Water Scarcity

Janneh A and J Ping, 2011. Minerals and Africa’s Development:  The International Study Group Report on Africa’s Mineral Regime, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2011,  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

KPMG, 2015. Mining in Africa Towards 2020

O’Sullivan L, Seabra N M, and P Penny, 2015. School in a Box, White Paper Institute of Art Design and Technology Dun Laoghaire, Ireland

Pitchford N J, 2015. Development of early mathematical skills with a tablet intervention: a randomized control trial in Malawi, Front. Psychol, 23 April 2015

Varghese E, 2006. Private sector as a partner in higher education development in Africa,

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