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By 17 September 2020 | Categories: feature articles

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While lockdown stages shift downward and the containment of the spread of the Covid-19 shows signs of success, the next pressing question becomes: how does the country recover economically?

It is undeniable that the South African economy has taken a beating in light of the Covid-19 virus and resulting lockdowns, with job losses being a casualty and a deepening economic recession being a weighty concern. This week Microsoft South Africa offered a glimmer of light for how technology can be used to  reimagine a primary industry in South Africa – mining - and help the country regain some ground.

In a virtual round table, the tech titan unpacked how artificial intelligence and cloud technologies can enable that industry to “accelerate digital transformation to reimagine new and better ways of working, drive sustainable recovery, and transform mining communities.”

The focus on mining comes in the wake of the launch of Microsoft’s Mining Core – AI Centre of Excellence for Mining facility in Johannesburg earlier this month. Microsoft reiterated that the Mining Core, makes use of Microsoft’s extensive partner ecosystem. It further allows customers to immerse themselves in emerging technologies to build and create solutions that not only overcome specific business challenges but also broadly enable the sector to grow and prosper.

“Mining is a critical industry in South Africa, and has historically been a major contributor to the country’s GDP, tax revenue and employment: last year alone, the mining sector employed over 450 000 people, contributed R24.3 billion in taxes and R360.9 billion to GDP,” noted Amr Kamel, Enterprise Director at Microsoft South Africa.

The sector’s importance to the economy is undeniable – but it has faced challenges in recent years. These include declining output, weakening global cost competitiveness based on the volatility of commodity prices, regulatory uncertainty and unreliable energy supply, according to a report by the Minerals Council.

Microsoft pointed out that, combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it, like so many sectors, needs solutions that can shift and boost it to regain its competitiveness so that the sector can become a key contributor and driver of economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

It is poetic that the key to achieving those goals lies in the marriage between technology, the sector that is traditionally future focused, and mining, one of the country’s oldest sectors.

Nonetheless, accelerated digital transformation, and the introduction of solutions through emerging technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things and data analytics, the company stressed that these have the power to help the mining industry adapt, reinvent and transform in a sustainable and responsible way.

“Together with our partner ecosystem, we are working to help our customers to navigate three phases – response, recovery, and reimagine – in order to maintain continuity, remain open, drive operational performance and create new business models even in the most difficult of circumstances,” continued Kamel.

Solutions, which are conceptualised and built collaboratively, are anchored in four main areas: community services and social impact; health and safety; environment; and responsible digital transformation.

  • Community involvement and engagement is vital for mining companies, and these organisations can use technology to play an important part in empowering surrounding communities. This includes building critical digital literacy skills that will help the employability of community members, as well as introducing solutions in areas like healthcare, education, agriculture and community support services.
  • Emerging technologies can also help with health and safety, which is always a priority but particularly so in the face of a pandemic. Introducing solutions using technologies like autonomous systems such as drones, drills and vehicles, cognitive services and video analytics for safety management, such as detecting if a worker is wearing a hardhat or protective clothing, can make an impact. These kinds of technologies can also be used to support and manage health and safety protocols related to the pandemic, including social distancing and hygiene measures.  
  • Mining companies are also increasingly using digital solutions to enable sustainable recovery and decrease their environmental footprint, using them to reduce water consumption, waste and work towards being carbon neutral or even carbon negative. A growing trend is companies operating in coal, specifically, pivoting to renewables.
  • Above all, solutions that are introduced need to have responsible digital transformation and AI at their heart. “Responsible AI needs good guiding principles to ensure that systems are fair, reliable and safe, private and secure, inclusive, transparent and accountable, and we use our rich partner ecosystem to help with this.

“Digital is the future of mining, and the question now is how quickly companies in the sector can transform to drive growth. This requires partnering with technology companies like Microsoft to reimagine solutions that address specific business challenges and improve operational performance and efficiencies,” concluded Kamel.

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