The use of the blockchain, otherwise known as the Distributed ledger technologies (DLT), involves the setting up of digitally stored databases around several privately held locations around the globe, enabling the creation of electronic records which can be verified using peer-to-peer mechanisms, without any verifying party having centralized control of the database. Such a record is secure, accessible to all, and is immutable.
The very structure of the blockchain makes it suitable for use in eliminating the various challenges that have beset Africa’s mineral sector, which is riddled with problems that are created from the relative opacity of all segments of the sector. Take any person living in a typical African mining community and ask whether he or she knows what happens to the minerals taken from their soil and you would be lucky to get an informed answer.
The opacity of the processes involved from the extraction point to when the precious minerals and the payments change hands provides the perfect cover for those who game the system at all levels.
In many African countries, national governments do not even know how much of their minerals leave their shores. Such is the level of decadence in the mineral sector in Africa.
The situations above probably operate where there are legitimate governments in place. When there are conflict situations or conditions where renegade movements are in control of the areas where the mineral resources are located, things take a gory turn. The problems of conflict minerals which the film “Blood Diamonds” portrayed in a toned-down manner are now well known.
The emphasis now is to deploy initiatives that can address all the problems associated with Africa’s extractive industry and to bring about improvements. The use of distributed ledger technology will directly address the problems with record-keeping, traceability, and management of the entire supply chain. The blockchain can be used to enforce standards that comply with international conventions on the extraction, processing, marketing, and distribution of mineral resources and their derivatives.
The political, economic and social cost of illegal mining in Africa is immense. From Ghana to DR Congo, Nigeria to South Africa, the story is the same. The locals and the economy of the mining communities are left impoverished as vast lands that could be used for agriculture are destroyed by uncontrolled and unethical mining methods.
Local workers are subjected to slave-like, dehumanizing conditions with armed soldiers paid for by these companies, set over these workers. The countries bleed foreign exchange as revenues that could have gone to development projects is siphoned off by large foreign corporations. The only gainers are the big mining companies, their executives and local collaborators in government and the communities.
The Blockchain: The Tool for Audibility and Accountability
Distributed ledger technologies have certain features that make them adaptable as tools of audibility and accountability in the African mineral sector.
- They are decentralized and available to all
- The records stored on the databases are immutable
- The records are open to public scrutiny and validation
The lack of a single clearinghouse or a single point at which information is warehoused makes it very hard to alter records pertaining to the mining operations. A government can in an instant, know who has been granted mining licenses, who has commenced operations, and which companies are not listed on the national database of mining licenses.
Records are secure and cannot be altered or subjected to fraudulent accounting practices. No single person can lay hold of control on the ecosystem. The records can be viewed by all. Transactions can be scrutinized and validated. Tax records of mining companies can immediately be accessed. Prosecution of errant parties in the mining industry can be made a lot easier as incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing can be gathered quickly. Opacity is sacrificed instantly on the altar of transparency; this is what the blockchain offers.
The blockchain can significantly degrade the ability of those who game the mining industry in Africa in an instant. Its efforts can be supplemented by the demands of increasingly aware consumers, who want to be sure that what they are buying was ethically sourced in an environmentally friendly manner.
Consumers also want to be sure that what they are getting was not produced by dehumanizing labor practices, and that it passed through an accountable supply chain management system that can pinpoint the pathway of the minerals from point of origin to destination.
Blockchain technology is not a fix-all solution to the problems in Africa’s mining industry. But the blockchain forms a very strong foundation on which fundamental change can occur.
Use Case Applications of the Blockchain in Africa’s Mining Industry
One of the ways in which the blockchain can be used to benefit Africa’s mineral industries is by the tracking of conflict minerals. One country that is already doing this is Rwanda. Rwanda became the first country in the world to adopt blockchain technology in addressing the problem of conflict minerals within its borders. Rwanda uses the blockchain to track the entire mining chain of Tantalum, from the mining pots to the refining furnaces.
Another example of the use of distributed ledger technology to track minerals in Africa comes from a private company. IAMGOLD Corporation is a gold miner which is using the blockchain to track responsibly sourced gold. IAMGOLD Corporation has its African operations in Burkina Faso and uses a blockchain technology solution developed by California-based company, Emtech.
These two are examples of how a government and a private corporation in Africa are helping contribute to the use of distributed ledger technologies to combat Africa’s mining problems.