Agriculture and mining in Africa: a sustainable future

Published: 12/06/14

The International Council on Mining and Metals published in its overview on mining’s contribution to sustainable development in 2012 noting that:

“…mining is a key contributor to economic growth and improved material quality of life. Mining’s long time horizon, its need for both skilled and unskilled labour, its links to regional infrastructure and service development as well as the importance of the products that it produces, means that it can make a unique and powerful contribution to sustainable development. With responsible public and private management, the mining and metals industry can contribute to poverty alleviation across the world while maintaining ecosystem integrity”.

and

“It is increasingly recognised that business has both a responsibility to respect human rights and an important role to play in contributing to social development and poverty alleviation”.

The mining industry has activities and interests over the whole of Africa. In most cases a local community is affected (whether positively or adversely) by the presence, whether socio-economic or environmental in nature of the mining sector. As the African mining sector has boomed, the mining industry have been under pressure regarding corporate social responsibility (CSR) and have been meeting CSR-needs in most cases by supporting communities in the form of clinics, schools or some other public assistance.

However, this assistance, whilst creating a very important and positive economic impact on traditional rural communities, is typically not sustainable without the continuous support of the mines. When a mine and its settlement closes down, the local communities invariably suffer. Apart from the immediate and local challenges this creates, more fundamentally, over a long time this pattern of “assistance” followed by withdrawal simply creates another layer on basic scepticism towards mining and foreign investment, thus making it harder for those wanting to invest and assist in the future.

This article sets out a solution to this unfortunate habit.   Given the importance of agriculture in Africa – of the African population south of the Sahara, 70%-80% of the population is dependent on agriculture, mostly on a subsistence level with the majority of role players being women – it seems obvious to seek to engage with this historical and present statistic by leveraging off the CSR objectives of mining companies to deliver sustainable African agriculture.

For those willing to make the effort, there are practical and sustainable solutions to be found for sustainable development – especially where the philosophy in the process includes long term emphasis on “self-help”.

A solution

The premise that agriculture is able to assist in providing a sustainable future for Africa requires an understanding of how agricultural projects in an African context can be sustainable.

In his doctoral thesis on Land Reform in South Africa, an agricultural perspective, successes, problems, solutions (2011), Dr Dewald Pretorius of Afrilema identified certain supporting components that need to be addressed in order to supply the necessary capacity to farmers to be sustainable:

  • up-stream components consist of access to agricultural inputs and the acquisition thereof, extension and support services, training, business services (including access to agricultural credit), research as well as specialist services;
  • production related components include amongst others the provision of livestock and agronomical inputs, mechanisation and transport to farmers, farm maintenance services, co-ordination of production as well as research; and
  • the down-stream component consists of bulking, storage, collection, processing and holding facilities as well as market feedback and research services.

Rendering the above range of support services demands a concerted and coordinated effort and implies the establishment of both capacity and relevant facilities and infrastructure from where such services could be organised, coordinated and provided; the underlying principle being economy of scale, off-take of produce and effective empowerment of the rural small farmer.

It is in this context that the importance of a mining project becomes evident. The establishment of a commercial farming enterprise in economic proximity to mining infrastructure (as well as the local communities) allows rural small farmers to leverage off the mining project to achieve the fundamental conditions to sustainability set out above. The goal in achieving this is to provide the agricultural project with facilities that support the local small farmers as well as be profitable in its own right, taking the small farmer in its wake of market development and modern techniques.

A reality that should be taken notice of is that it is difficult to change traditional agricultural practices to accommodate changes into more modern technologies. Experience has shown that “seeing is believing”, and, based on this principle, the commercial farm acts as pilot and a skills transfer base to take the small farmers into commercial production and a more comfortable food security situation.

The commercial farm, on land procured through local legal systems, or leased from the mine property, is intended to act as a central service hub for farmers, and, preferably, be at least co-owned on a co-operation basis by the farmers. It creates a vested interest, promotes the principle of self-help and generates cohesion among communities in their development.

Once the mining company gets to the end of its life, the development should be self-sustainable, and be able to operate under its own management.

Finance

The modest capital to plan and establish such a farm can be accommodated in the CSR budget of the mining project while it also absorbs the produce for its own and workers’ use (particularly relevant where mining projects are in remote locations). With the period needed to develop the farm, markets, profitable yields for both itself and small farmers, it will be necessary to subsidise the operation, probably on a seasonal basis.

To take matters further, this farm can further be developed into a complete service centre inclusive of clinic, farmers’ supply and schools.

Planning and implementation

The success of such an enterprise will depend on a proper feasibility study, planning and especially implementation. Many mining companies are able to plan and implement in-house but there are also a number of agricultural specialist consulting and implementation agents (such as Afrilema) that are able to be engaged to take the process through all the steps towards success. The period of time to successfully implement the projects (including proper skills and farming management transfer) can necessitate engagements for as long as five years.

Exit strategy

The basis of the proposed approach is that it starts with support from the mining company, inclusive of finance and product offtake. As mentioned, with proper planning and management the enterprise should reach a point of break-even and beyond to profits.

The moment the project with its various enterprises break through into a profit and management is sufficiently empowered, the mining company can become less involved. The markets developed for the farm and its surrounding small farmer network as well as established processing plants, should create a firm base for the future.

Thus, long after the mine has even closed down, the effect of the effort through its CSR funding process will prevail to the benefit of the communities affected.

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