There may have been some wishful thinkers within the global mining community hoping that the 27th annual Investing in African Mining Indaba would go ahead as normal in sunny Cape Town this year, particularly after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was suppressed in South Africa and other countries around the world. But even before the onset of the dreaded second wave, the Indaba organisers made the difficult – but ultimately correct – decision to postpone the physical event for the first time in its history. The iconic conference has connected the African mining sector with leading international investors on a face-to-face basis for over two-and-a-half decades, but despite not being able to gather in the ‘Mother City’ in 2021, the Indaba team was resolute in its belief that the show must go on. Like many companies in the mining sector have over the past year, Indaba embraced digital solutions to the problems posed by the pandemic, with Mining Indaba Virtual taking place on February 2-3. A few weeks prior, RGN’s editor interviewed Indaba’s head of content Tom Quinn to find out what delegates could expect from the first ever virtual Indaba. The conversation, reproduced below, also covers some of the key trends and positive stories that emerged in the African mining sector during an acutely challenging 2020.
Jacob Ambrose Willson: Tom, for the first time in Mining Indaba’s 27-year history, the industry won’t be gathering in Cape Town in 2021. How will Mining Indaba Virtual seek to replicate the experience of the renowned event from the safety of each delegate’s home?
Tom Quinn: It’s certainly been a very unique year for all of us globally, and with Indaba having an African focus but with a global audience, we’ve had to come up with the best solution that we can. Everyone agrees that the appetite for Indaba hasn’t diminished, and there’s no real substitute for face-to-face gatherings, so hopefully in time and with the vaccine rollout that will become more of a reality. But we’ve set up Mining Indaba Virtual on February 2-3 using a professional platform and recording team, so it will be more like a television studio experience rather than the regular webinar experience that many of us have seen throughout the year. We wanted to maintain those premium brand values that people expect from Indaba.
Sadly we won’t get the opportunity to meet in Cape Town, especially if you are like me in London; we look forward to the sunshine and good weather out there. But looking at the positives of what we’re able to do with a digital platform, it’s really democratised the Indaba outreach in a way, particularly with our Young Leaders who are very tech savvy and used to communicating using digital technology. The Young Leaders and students typically find it challenging to travel to Indaba with the expense and time involved. This is a great way for us to bring in that next generation audience, as well as investors in China and other parts of Asia and people way out in North America, in East coast US and West coast Canada, who usually might find it tricky to get to Indaba. We’re very excited about what we’ve been able to achieve and we’re looking forward to hosting it.
JAW: The COVID-19 pandemic threw up huge challenges for African governments, healthcare systems and mining companies. How did all three work in tandem to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in 2020?
TQ: This is a very good question and one I’ve been talking to many stakeholders about in the past few months, not least from our own experience. We were in constant communication with the authorities in Cape Town, the President’s office in South Africa and with the DMRE [Department of Mineral Resources] to find a way to make it possible to get to Indaba in February. I found the experience overwhelmingly positive when speaking to mining companies and indeed government ministries about 2020, despite the pandemic which has caused havoc in terms of people’s lives.
What I’m hearing, for example from our friends at the ICMM, is a number of instances where mining companies have been able to step up quickly and respond very proactively to the situation on the ground. In many particularly remote communities in Africa, supply chains are dependent on mining companies and the help they can provide. So when it came to local or national governments not being able to respond in some cases, mining companies have been converting their healthcare facilities into field hospitals to help with COVID-19 patients, and that’s not just restricted to mine employees, whole communities have been able to access this.
Miners have distributed PPE, again not just to the men and women working at mine sites but to the wider community. And very importantly, many mining companies have been in a strong position to guarantee employment in this very precarious time, which is a big relief to many mining employees and the economy as a whole. What I’m hearing from several ministries and groups like the Minerals Council of South Africa is that governments have been impressed with the way that miners have responded and are looking to implement this in the way they work together going forward, which I think is a huge outcome.
JAW: Metals prices almost across the board actually enjoyed strong growth throughout 2020. How important is it for miners to continue re-investing revenues into the communities and countries that have yielded their wealth across Africa?
TQ: At a fundamental level, without that resource there would be no resource business and no spikes in terms of precious and base metals prices as we’ve seen. The gold price has had a very strong year stemming from uncertainty created by the pandemic, but also silver, copper and even iron ore, with the resurgence of building in China, is breaking a few records. Very importantly, the platinum group metals sector has enjoyed a good year on the back of ongoing work into electric vehicles (EVs) and the energy transition.
I think this is a really key point in terms of the ESG responsibilities that mining companies have to local communities. Not just many of the building blocks or decarbonisation are involved in mining, but also the deep roots that mining companies have within local and national economies. We’re seeing a lot of re-investment into the regions in which mining companies operate, and that hasn’t been a difficult choice to make for those companies. As I’ve mentioned, they’ve been only too happy to step up and help their local communities weather the storm of the pandemic.
JAW: It’s interesting you mention the energy transition, as much has been made of President Joe Biden’s metals-intensive ‘$2 trillion green infrastructure’ plan for the recovery of the US economy. How important will mining be to the rebooting of African economies, as well as in the US?
TQ: It’s very positive to see the new US administration re-engaging not least with the World Health Organization, but also with the Paris Agreement, which has been overwhelming received internationally, not least by Africa. From what I’ve heard from our partners in the state department of the US in recent weeks, the investment and support policies towards Africa are not going to change significantly, in fact the US Government is looking to build on the good work that the Prosper Africa initiative has been doing the past few years.
When it comes to the Green New Deal, the decarbonisation story is happening in mining companies globally, but particularly in Africa. Africa is at the cusp of a great opportunity in terms of battery metals and green metals, by which I mean copper but also the PGMs, nickel and rhodium, which has been an extraordinary recent story – the rhodium price has increased by something like 3,000% in the past year.
Many of the fundamental building blocks of the green economy exist in natural resources in Africa. We’re seeing companies like Ivanhoe Mining, run by Robert Friedland – an Indaba regular, significantly increase investment in copper-cobalt mining in the DRC. Just recently a UK company has signed a deal with the Tanzanian government in terms of nickel production. A really good story is coming out, not just from EVs and the impact that can have on decarbonisation, but also renewables and energy storage. I think that’s a really exciting one to watch in the next couple of years.
All the materials for the energy transition are there in Africa. It’s significant that the US wants to maintain its key relationships in Africa and Indaba is one of the ways in which they aim to do that with dialogue from the ministers, heads of state and the various departments in the US.
JAW: Mining Indaba has embraced digital solutions to challenges posed by the pandemic. What other lessons can be learned by the mining sector, broadening out to things like automation remote operation of mine sites?
TQ: Much like many businesses, last year was a challenging time for mining firms, but also a year that provided an opportunity to accelerate digital programmes. Our organisation is one very good example of this, with the ability to take Indaba online and therefore create access to many different parts of the world.
For a number of years, mining companies have been embracing the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, along with digital transformation and automation. We run a dedicated content stream at Indaba – Mining 2050 – which addresses the digital transformation that is going on. A great example is Resolute Mining, the Australian–listed gold mining company who have built a mining operation which is fully automated in Mali. In a COVID context, it is able to run pretty much unhindered whilst other mining operations have had to take the health and safety of their employees as the number one priority.
Many people I’ve been speaking with in the past year from mining operations typically were in a work from home environment and they’ve responded positively. They say necessity is the mother of invention, which has been very true for most of us in the past year. So the operational functions have found a way to adapt to what is going on.
We’ve also seen many non-mining companies becoming much more involved in Indaba and the African mining sector, like Siemens for example and the big tech guys Google and Apple. We’ve even been hearing recently from ROV [remotely operated underwater vehicle] and drone operators, who’ve been very interested in ways to get involved in the Indaba as they see the opportunities created in mining, with perhaps an accelerated viewpoint from what’s been going on with the pandemic.
JAW: Finally, what elements of the virtual event will Mining Indaba look to build on and integrate into future shows (hopefully back in Cape Town in the not-too-distant future)?
TQ: It was a very big decision to have to cancel the face-to-face Indaba this February and not one that we took lightly. But we immediately responded with our contingency plan and I’m excited by the fact that we can reach many new people who perhaps haven’t been able to travel to Indaba before, particularly the Young Leaders. The future of the industry is in their hands and we’re seeing a return in many cases to graduates looking at mining as an opportunity to become involved in the values that they hold dear.
The perception of mining in recent years has often not been great in terms of its ESG lens. People like Mark Cutifani of Anglo American have talked about the problem that mining has had with its ability to engage with a next generation audience. But the sector’s ESG emphasis is getting much better and is presenting a lot of tech opportunities for example, in terms of reducing Scope 3 emissions, which is critical to a number of the big mining operators. I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for a young audience to get involved with Indaba.
We have four heads of state, which is incredible and underscores the importance of Indaba to many African nations, not just South Africa and the fact that we’re in Cape Town. We’re looking forward to welcoming President Cyril Ramaphosa and the presidents of the DRC, Sierra Leone and Botswana. We’re excited to hear their views on how mining can help reboot the economies of their countries.
I am also excited to be hosting so many important names within the industry. We have Bold Bataar from Rio Tinto and Bady Baldé from the EITI [Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative] to name two. We have representatives from Standard Bank, the ICMM and in particular I am very excited to welcome Natascha Viljoen, the recently ordained CEO of Anglo Platinum. It’s great to have people on board like Natascha, who is a great advocate for Women in Mining, one of our key partners.
One final thing is, we have spent a lot of time and dialogue with the Minerals Council of South Africa and I’m pleased to say we recently announced our long-term partnership with them, so that we can make sure we are responding to the needs of the operators, stakeholders and the wider communities within South African mining and that they have a greater voice in what we are doing. Although we won’t get the opportunity to meet face-to-face in February, there’s a huge amount to look forward to with Virtual, and we’ve also got an investors day at the end of March and many more digital and hopefully hybrid opportunities coming up throughout the year.