Geomatics and Mining Sector Development in Africa: Popular Version for Prospective Students


Geomatics and Mining Sector Development in Africa: Popular Version for Prospective Students

Geomatics and Mining Sector Development in Africa: Popular Version for Prospective Students

by Nashon J. Adero, Founder – Impact Borderless Digital


The mining sector is at a crossroads. On the one hand, there is the allure and promise of mineral-driven economic development for the mineral-rich continent that is Africa. On the other hand, there is the disconcerting ambivalence that arises from the widespread poor socioeconomic outcomes among the host communities in mining regions and the environmental degradation that irresponsible mining activities cause.

The author’s research findings on Africa’s mining sector have informed an unequivocal statement thus: The face of Africa’s mining sector has for too long been scripted in 8Ds that are a poster child for vices in the nexus of land, human rights, and environment: dispossession, disputes, disease, degradation, deprivation, destitution, death, and deformity. These Ds, some of them unintended consequences, are far removed from the aspirational virtue of inclusive economic empowerment that governments and citizens expect from the mining sector. The mining industry has been an integral fabric of civilisation and remains relevant to powering the cutting-edge technology needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Reversing the vicious 8Ds requires innovation and the application of improved resource governance models.

This article is a popular version that explores the role of Geomatics in accelerating the much-needed virtuous transformation in the mining sector to enhance governance while optimising operational efficiency, productivity, and safety. Prospective students of Mining and Geomatics education will find it enlightening on how their joint contributions can help transform the mining sector in Africa.

Sustainability: Is the mining sector worthy of any policy attention?

Sustainability is an old concept with roots traceable to the linkages between mining and forestry in the early 18th century as a need arose to avert a looming wood crisis due to silver mining in Freiberg (Silver City), a town located in the present-day Germany’s Free State of Saxony. Developed through a series of global summits and key reports such as the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability has matured into a widely accepted global development concept currently formalised in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Being practically non-renewable, minerals make mining an unlikely candidate for sustainability. Robert Solow, the 1987 Nobel laureate in Economic sciences, illuminated the game-changing perspective of “weak sustainability”, which liberates mining from this detested candidature to an essential enterprise that, if governed well, promotes sustainability by enabling investments in renewable substitutes. For example, cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, and rare earth metals are essential to developing modern energy storage devices and renewable energy technologies for electric vehicles, which are more environmentally friendly and promotive of decarbonisation targets under the green and circular economy concepts. Further promoted by recycling and recovery technologies, sustainable mining is within reach in a world experiencing a rapid shortening in the period of the Knowledge Doubling Curve – from 25 years in 1945 to a year in 2017, and soon to reduce to just hours.

Why Geomatics?

Have you ever described a dream as distant, a claim as far-fetched, or a judgement as sloping? Life is full of such spatial metaphors used to perceive and interpret distance and direction in our physical and mental worlds. In 2014, the Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology recognised the key finding that the human brain has grid cells and place cells, an “inner GPS” which maps out space by encoding coordinates to guide memory and navigation. In part, this was also a triumph of research interests in applied geometrical sciences and the already widespread application of global positioning and navigation technologies using GPS or GNSS receivers.

Besides gravity and light are two other great mysteries of nature which move about as twins: space and time. From them, we derive the terms “spatial” and “temporal” respectively, hence the fundamental space-time or “spatio-temporal” philosophy for abstracting, organising, perceiving, and interpreting our world. Spatial data, being location-specific, is the main type of data supporting development decisions on, above or below the Earth’s surface. Mining is one such key activity that is carried out as surface mining, underground mining, and soon at the new frontiers of the deep sea including the Pacific Ocean’s mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Zone and further into space. 

Geomatics Simplified

Geomatics is the interdisciplinary field whose wide umbrella encompasses the Earth-related and geometrical specialties. It utilises data-driven knowledge and applied research to support development decisions and monitor location-based outcomes. Geomatics experts tackle the capture, processing, analysis, management, modelling, visualisation, and dissemination of spatial data and information to ensure effective decision support. Geomatics enables us to understand the amazing world of applied spatial sciences and reap the benefits of today’s data-driven digital revolution.

Geomatics has evolved significantly since 1975, when Bernard Dubuisson published the scientific term Geomatique (in French), later popularised in Canada over the period 1981-1982 as Geomatics (English translation) by Michel Paradis, a surveyor. Later on, Geomatics got adopted as a degree course by engineering faculties in Australia and the United Kingdom. Geomatics has since evolved to be an attractive interdisciplinary field.

Geomatics combines traditional and modern aspects of surveying and mapping including airborne and spaceborne technologies, essentially using location-based data (spatial data) to deliver accurate and precise metrics which are critical to demarcating land and property boundaries for registering ownership rights (cadastral surveys); land administration; land use planning; engineering and construction projects; positioning and navigation on, below or above land and water; and providing actionable location-based intelligence in aid of planning, management and monitoring assignments for business, public and civil society sectors. In an era when decision support increasingly demands big data and reliable real-world information, these application areas are gaining currency and prominence.

The science of positioning and navigation has inspired key developments in traditional and emerging subjects such as land surveying, space geodesy, hydrographic surveying, geoinformatics, cartography, photogrammetry and satellite remote sensing, geospatial or geographic information science/systems (GIS), cognitive neuroscience, computational neuroscience, geomedicine, among others. 

Any efforts in Africa and Kenya to promote the application of Geomatics?

The Africa Mining Vision and the Africa Data Consensus as an International Open Data Charter are promotive of data-driven transparency for sound resource governance in Africa. The continent-wide availability of analysis-ready geodata from initiatives such as Digital Earth Africa (DEA) means we have only just begun the long journey, in a post-pandemic world coming to terms with the huge unexploited potential of Geomatics for: novel deployment of spatial technologies in security and warfare intelligence; laser precision surveys for planning, design and construction; environmental monitoring; Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for imaging and deliveries; smart disease and disaster governance; smart transportation; smart mining; business intelligence; precision agriculture, among others.

In practice, the applications of Geomatics are evident in land surveying and land information management (e.g. Ardhisasa and the online mining cadastre in Kenya); surveying and mapping for minerals and mining; engineering surveys for building, highway, bridge, tunnel, railway, airport and seaport construction; navigation for vehicle routing and wildlife management; policy enforcement and compliance monitoring when dealing with protected areas such as riverbanks and road reserves; remotely monitoring crop yields, plant health, habitats, water quality, land use and land cover changes using aerial photographs and satellite imagery, among others. 

How can Geomatics improve outcomes for the mining sector in Kenya?

In all mineral and mining sector issues, surveying and mapping is critical to exploration, planning, production, human rights governance, and the rehabilitation of landscapes after mining. Reputed as Africa’s most modern and progressive mining law, classified as the fourth generation of Africa’s mining law reforms, Kenya’s Mining Act of 2016 has made key provisions for ensuring spatial integrity in mining sector governance. The law has specifications for mapping scale and the geometric sections for defining a mining block, basically a pseudo-quadrilateral formed by 15-second graticule spacing in latitudes and longitudes. Again, airborne geophysical surveys are resourceful in mapping out the geographical spread and types of hidden mineral wealth. Kenya has already made key steps towards completing a nationwide airborne geophysical survey.

To achieve the much-needed transparency and data integrity in the mining sector as aspired to in the Africa Mining Vision and similar national development visions, Geomatics is a key provider of the accuracy and precision needed for administering land, mining and environmental rights across mining regions. This is a crucial contribution to resolving the problems of land dispossession and disputes and the deprivation that thrives in a lack of data integrity and transparency. Geomatics supports the spatial integrity needed to precisely address the key questions of spatial exactitude and spatial justice for land-centric resource governance. The ability to go back in time remotely and project into the future is a powerful facility for solving historical injustices and predictive planning to serve future needs, by processing imagery from space satellites and airborne sources and using integrated geo-visualisation models and machine learning algorithms to improve classification and forecasting accuracies. 

Satellite imagery, combined with high-resolution imagery from drones and sensors, assist in monitoring the mining environment for mining-induced changes in landscapes, vegetative cover, air quality, and proximate critical features such as water resources and conservation areas. Post-mining land reclamation and rehabilitation is a crucial requirement nowadays. Kenya’s Mining Act of 2016 requires mining companies to deposit environmental bonds with the Ministry in charge of mining to cater for mine closure. Geomatics provides the spatial metrics and restorative spatial models needed to achieve desirable ecological outcomes and environmental sustainability. A good example in Kenya is the Haller Nature Park in Mombasa, which has been transformed from a former quarry wasteland.  These applications of Geomatics are key to addressing the problems of land and environmental degradation, thereby extending solutions to the vicious problems of diseases associated with mining-induced degradation of the environment and natural resources.

At a granular scale, laser technologies are deployed on mining sites, either through terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) or airborne laser scanning (ALS), to come up with accurate 3D models and quantitative analysis of earthworks. Millimetre-precision solutions using optical survey instruments and differential radar interferometry are used to monitor subtle deformation on mining sites, such as subsidence, to ensure mining safety. This is a crucial requirement for preventing the death and deformity associated with unsafe mining activities.

At the panoramic community scale, sharing benefits in a just, fair and transparent manner is a sensitive policy and systemic issue in the mining sector. For example, the 70:20:10 ratio specified in Kenya’s Mining Act for sharing royalties has the last component (10%) assigned to the host communities where mining takes place. This raises a compelling “where” question, invoking decisive spatial variables for exactitude in juridical and jurisdictional determination. Accurate location data on the population and settlement patterns of host communities and determination of their location-based vulnerabilities to the adverse effects of mining activities are key variables in securing fair and adequate compensation. For example, in 2016, a public inquiry led by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) across Taita Taveta County got reports that the concentration level of learners in schools near mining sites was low due to disruptions by the nearby mining activities. Geomatics offers the precise decision metrics needed to address such complex location-based challenges. To the challenge of benefits sharing in the mining sector, Geomatics avails the precise metrics needed to map out and understand the complex geography and spatial relationships between the interconnected issues of social justice in the mining-environment-society nexus. As such, this interdisciplinary and data-driven specialty is key to enhancing mining sector governance for inclusive socioeconomic empowerment and reducing the unintended consequences of destitution and deprivation across mining regions.

Which educational institutions are training in this area?

It is nowadays common to find Geomatics (Engineering) or its variants in Geospatial Engineering and space technologies among well-established university programmes in Kenya and globally. In Kenya, the University of Nairobi commands the longest history in offering degrees in this area (the first one awarded in 1967 as a degree in Surveying), within the Faculty of Engineering. The other universities offering courses under the broad umbrella of Geomatics are the Technical University of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, Taita Taveta University, among others. Graduates from these Geomatics programmes in Kenya have for a long time been fewer than graduates from most STEM programmes, usually less than 35 per university annually.

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Mining spots across Taita Taveta in Kenya: Based on Sentinel 2 image, 10 m spatial resolution

At the postgraduate level, there are scholarship programmes that young Geomatics graduates can join locally and abroad. The DAAD-funded Centre of Excellence for Mining, Environmental Engineering and Resource Management (CEMEREM) is hosted at Taita Taveta University, Kenya. Annually, CEMEREM sponsors studies locally at Taita Taveta University for MSc training related to mining, environmental engineering and natural resource management. This is a ready pathway through which the young graduates can develop their capacity to address the geodata-intensive needs of the modern mining sector. BSc (Mining Engineering) students typically take units in engineering surveying, mine surveying and GIS, usually spread across three academic years. At the postgraduate level, the graduates of Mining Engineering can specialise in mine surveying and subsequently contribute to the broader and dynamic Geomatics practice for the mining sector.

The Institution of Surveyors of Kenya (ISK) is the professional body registering Geomatics experts, already boasting a membership of almost 4,000 in the year 2021. The training of Geomatics in Kenya has matured over time, making Kenyan graduates as competitive as any other across the world. One of the graduates of Geomatics from the University of Nairobi, Prof. Washington Yotto Ochieng, has applied Geomatics and Telematics to improve transportation planning in the UK, and now heads the Department of  Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Imperial College London. This is an inspiration to the youth who are keen on making borderless impact through multidisciplinary expertise in Geomatics.

Do we have a critical mass of youth in Geomatics for the market needs?

The number of young Geomatics graduates is increasing annually with the increasing uptake of Geomatics courses in Kenya and globally, hence the increasing share of the youthful demographic who should be engaged meaningfully in the dynamic labour market. University and industry are together called upon to participate actively and innovatively in addressing the worrying skills gap that has been confirmed in Kenya. A recent (April 2021) nationwide survey of Kenyan youths aged 18-35 revealed that only 24% of college graduates were confident that they had acquired market-ready skills upon graduation (a survey by Impact Borderless Digital, supported by the African Centre for Career Enhancement and Skills Support under the “University of Ideas” competition).

With the population of Kenya projected to be 60 million by 2030, the demand for data-driven solutions that are visually mapped with location-based intelligence will rise. COVID-19, for instance, demands location-specific interventions for sampling and tracing efficacy to support timely and effective calibration of policy and strategic responses. Digitalisation and automation are likely to decimate routine tasks in favour of new and transferable skills to meet emerging labour market shifts. New jobs, such as human-to-machine matching managers, will emerge, eventually shifting big data analytics from the margins to the mainstream application arena of daily decision support. Spatial data will still command the largest share of the big data. From this perspective, therefore, it is not so much about increasing the absolute number of graduates as it is about developing the skills proficiency and adaptive resilience of the current students and young graduates. To reinforce this point, Coursera’s 2020 Global Skills Index showed that a percentage increase in a country’s average skills proficiency correlates with an increase of about 600 USD in per capita GDP.

The question of achieving a critical mass of young Geomatics experts is, therefore, a question of expediting the meaningful engagement and skilling of the growing number of young Geomatics graduates, thus empowering them to take on strategic roles in the dynamic Geomatics technology marketplace. Young graduates need proper skilling, complete with structured mentorship in Geomatics so as to gain the competencies and adaptive resilience they need to quickly mature into consummate experts who can deliver impactful solutions. The mining sector is a key opening with new and growing opportunities for young graduates to make an impact, as mine surveyors and experts in Geomatics for mineral resource assessment as well as environmental health and safety management.

University, industry, and the relevant professional bodies, such as the ISK, must work together to skill, empower, and mentor the youth in Geomatics with the end in mind. Accelerated skills development for effectively addressing the science-policy interface on economic sectors of national and international importance, the mining sector being key, is one such end we must have in mind.

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