The West African Exploration Initiative – a case study in development geoscience

  • By M W Jessell, Professor, Centre for Exploration Targeting, School of Earth Sciences, the University of Western Australia and Directeur de Recherche, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, France and the WAXI team

Scientific research such as geoscientific exploration and analysis can have beneficial effects for communities and governments

In many countries the use of scientific research as a tool for development is an inherent part of the logic behind government support. To be clear, ‘development’ in this case refers to social and/or economic development, not the more common association of research and development (R&D) aimed at technological advances (although both may occur in a single research project). The idea of research for development, or in the case of the geosciences what we might call ‘development geoscience’, is not new, and more generally there is an acceptance that government research programs will include ‘broader impact’ goals including associated outreach and training activities.

There is no single metric for development: one could include social, education, health, gender, polity (form of government) and other factors in various blends, and we can consider three overlapping domains of development geoscience:

  1. research aimed at raising the socio-economic level of a region (such as prospectivity mapping)
  2. projects aimed at raising the capacity of a region to undertake research, which in turn may or may not be directly aimed at raising the socio-economic level of a region (such as a program of training courses)
  3. studies into the mechanisms of development and appropriate research methodologies.

There is a huge volume of geoscience research that takes place in developing countries (not least because many of the world’s active tectonic margins are hosted by developing countries), and often this research is carried out in the form of an international collaboration. However, these do not necessarily fall into the category of development geoscience as these outcomes are not in general a stated aim of the project.

The ten-year AMIRA International Project P934 ‘West African Exploration Initiative’ (WAXI), now in its third phase, represents an example of a research project that has dual aims of scientific research aimed at understanding the tectonic and regolith settings of ore deposits, and the development of the research and training capacity of West African geological surveys and universities. This article will describe the WAXI initiative and the dual nature of its aims.

WAXI is a public-private partnership that in its third phase brings together over 30 of the major stakeholders in the domain of minerals exploration in West Africa:

  • the government surveys and departments of mines of ten West African states (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo)
  • seven West and South African universities (from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and
    South Africa)
  • 12 international mining companies
  • researchers from seven European and Australian research institutions
  • AMIRA International, an independent association of minerals companies that develops, brokers and facilitates collaborative research projects
  • a Luxembourg-based NGO that works in Burkina Faso
  • a private training centre based in Burkina Faso.

Research activities

The first (pilot) phase of the WAXI project ran from September 2006 to March 2008 (with 13 industry sponsors), the second phase ran from March 2010 to July 2013 (with 18 industry sponsors) and the third phase started in September 2014 and will run until August 2018 (with 12 industry sponsors so far). The overall aim of WAXI is to enhance the exploration potential of the West African Craton (WAC) through an integrated program of research and data gathering into its ‘anatomy’, and to augment the capacity of local institutions to undertake this form of work.

The research program was designed after a process of consultation with industry in a preliminary phase, during which a detailed data and information audit and gaps analysis was carried out. Its main focus is on the collection and synthesis of geological, regolith, metallogenic, geochemical and geochronological datasets from across the WAC. The resultant research program comprises a set of integrated research modules which are grouped into three themes: architecture and timing, mineralising systems and surface processes. The WAC spans 13 countries, which use three administrative languages (French, English and Arabic), so much previous work has been fragmented in its approach, with little synthesis beyond harmonised regional-scale maps. This research represents one form of supporting economic development in the region, as it provides key datasets (in geographic information system (GIS)-ready formats) that help to reduce geological risk in the minerals exploration decision-making process. The development of an exploration GIS is an important method of transferring information to partners, and this GIS has now expanded into a 250-layer online and static GIS database with more than 600 gigabytes of data and metadata related to West African geoscience.

The WAXI research program has taken a multi-scale approach to understanding the craton. At the largest scale, we have examined existing and newly compiled geophysical representations of the WAC in terms of its large-scale tectonic architecture, which provides a framework for specific regional studies (Jessell et al, 2016a). At the belt scale a number studies have integrated geological mapping with the interpretation of the regional geophysical datasets (magnetics, gravity, radiometrics and in some cases electro-magnetic data). An extensive geochronological sampling program, together with isotopic studies, has allowed us to define large-scale spatial variations in tectonic evolution (Parra-Avila et al, 2016). These studies share a common geodatabase so that we can produce seamless maps across country boundaries and between belts (Tshibududze et al, 2009 and 2015; Metelka et al, 2011; Baratoux et al, 2011; Perrouty et al, 2012; Block et al, 2016). We have also undertaken a work stream that characterised West African regolith and landform evolution, which has produced the first paleo-topographic map in the region (Grimaud et al, 2014 and 2015) and the first West African spectral library of rocks and regolith (Metelka et al, 2015). At the deposit scale the research program has characterised many deposits across the craton, principally gold deposits, which reflects the economic focus of much of the industry in the region over the last ten years. Finally we have carried out grain-scale studies to characterise mineralising, metamorphic and fluid evolution histories within and outside of ore deposits (Block et al, 2015; Fougerouse et al, 2016; Salvi et al, 2016).

The results of the research program have been progressively published over the last seven years, but in particular as four special volumes that were compiled following the end of confidentiality for stage two of the project (Jessell and Liegeois, 2015; Jessell et al, 2016b; Hein, 2016; André-Mayer , 2016). Finally, public presentations of the work were highlighted at two international conferences (Ouagadougou 2007 and Dakar 2015).

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Capacity-building activities

The capacity-building program is jointly led by the Luxembourg-based NGO ‘Le Soleil dans la Main’ and the professional training centre Teng Tuuma Geoservices (I-TTG) based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Direct capacity-building activities are supported in the form of student scholarships, financial support for student research, and in continuing education for industry, university and geological survey staff. The different stages of the WAXI project, together with associated one-on-one industry projects and university-funded scholarships, have allowed WAXI to support a total of 35 PhD projects, 35 masters and honours projects, and six postdoctoral fellowships, with more than half of these being African. The project has so far supported 18 three- to five-day field and classroom training courses to a total of 300 industry, university and geological survey personnel. These were held in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. The vast majority of the attendees of these courses were from Africa. Finally, we held a five-day course on research management aimed at
West African university and geological survey personnel.

Mapping WAXI activities to the African Mining Vision

The African Mining Vision (AMV) and its AMV action plan represents the African Union’s roadmap for development in the context of the minerals sector. Although the WAXI project pre-dates the AMV, the WAXI work program responds to many of the proposed AMV activities (Table 1).

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The success of the WAXI program comes from the commitment of the individuals and organisations that have been involved over the last ten years, but equally from the recognition that the different organisations have different drivers. Industry benefits in the short term by the acquisition of new datasets and their interpretation, and in the long term through the availability of better trained existing and incoming staff. Geological surveys benefit from better collaboration across the region, better trained staff and the opportunity to share common goals with industry. The higher education sector benefits from access to student scholarships and research funds.

The WAXI project forms part of a broad range of development geoscience initiatives in Africa  that all have overlapping aims that partially fulfil the aims of the AMV. The initiative demonstrates the significant achievements that can be made when the different stakeholders in the minerals sector (industry, academia, government and non-government organisations) work together to achieve their diverse goals.


We wish to gratefully acknowledge AMIRA International and the 34 industry sponsors, including AusAid and the ARC Linkage Project LP110100667, for their support of the different stages of the WAXI P934 series of projects. We are also appreciative of the contribution of the 12 geological surveys/departments of mines in West Africa as sponsors in kind of WAXI. Finally, we wish to recognise our WAXI research colleagues from 20 institutions around the world.  

Feature image: Photo by Jeff Attaway. Used under CC BY 2.0


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