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The best way for African countries to get more value from mining is to leverage infrastructure more effectively, so that economies can broaden their foundations into non-mineral sectors.By Peter Labrum, MD of SRK Consulting SA.

It is always heartening to be involved in mineral projects around Africa, as the economic spin-off generally gives a boost to both the local economy and the host country’s state revenues. SRK’s involvement is usually on the mining side, but just as often extends to the infrastructural elements of these projects – including roads, rail, ports and water supply.

Indeed, mining operations usually require a range of infrastructure before they can be viable. Where these facilities exist, they will need to be improved and/or extended to cater for the mine’s needs; where they don’t exist, the mine often has to take the lead in building them from scratch.

This creates huge opportunities for host economies, as the mine provides a valuable ‘kick-start’ to economic activity – especially in remote or previously under-serviced areas.

It hardly needs stating that the building of infrastructure – be it roads, rail lines, electricity supply or water pipes – is an expensive capital investment. So it deserves the best possible planning, implementation and maintenance.

Good planning of infrastructure ensures that it can be leveraged widely – not just optimising the operation of the mine it has been built for, but also fostering other economic opportunities in the vicinity and beyond. Such planning requires good governance in the political sphere, as local, regional and perhaps even national government could be involved.

Successful implementation of the plan requires effective project management, backed by solid engineering skills that ensure the resulting facilities are fit for purpose. It should also be remembered that it is not just a technical matter; the benefits of these facilities are felt by local people, and they therefore need to be engaged and consulted when interventions are made that affect them.

Finally, and crucially, there are the demands of good maintenance. Given the high capital costs of infrastructure development, there needs to be far more emphasis placed on maintaining these costly resources. This is not just a matter for a project or a particular scheme; it highlights what should be a central tenet of national development: to accumulate infrastructure over time, rather than get into the habit of having to replace what has stopped working.

As engineering consultants that offer a variety of solutions for sustainable development, our experience is clearly that much of the infrastructure around the continent does not last as long as it should. And this severely undermines our ability to build a developmental highway to the future.

The more constructive approach – now evident in those regions of Africa that have been more successful in building modern economies – is to progressively add to the levels of infrastructure over time, while maintaining the effectiveness of previous generations of public facilities.

Only recently, South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, told the annual convention of the Road Freight Association that South Africa needed to increase its use of rail freight to boost economic growth and preserve the country’s roads. This comes in the context of the National Development Plan’s comment that South Africa’s rail sector performs “significantly worse” than in comparable nations and needs to be maintained and expanded.

He reinforced the widely held view that long-haul cargo, such as coal and iron ore, should exclusively be transported on rail instead of the road networks and said it was unfortunate that coal from the northern provinces was transported via trucks because there was a lack of rail infrastructure. He said the result was clear: the life-span of main and arterial roads – not designed for such heavy-freight movement – was decreased significantly and the maintenance schedules were disrupted.

Infrastructure planning at all levels therefore needs to be carefully coordinated to avoid imbalances in the way that public facilities are used and to ensure that they make the economy more efficient. Only by regularly maintaining the continent’s extensive infrastructural investments can we effectively build upon them. New business can then thrive, supported by affordable public services that make them efficient and competitive.

The National Development Plan’s recommendation for South Africa is equally applicable to the continent as a whole: we need to maintain and expand the electricity, water, transport and telecommunications infrastructure in order to support economic growth and social development goals.

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