Twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa are categorized as resource-rich by the International Monetary Fund, but while African soil holds immense riches, the continent’s resources remain woefully under-mapped.
The World Bank‘s announcement that it will launch a $1-billion initiative to map the resources in the ground across the African continent has generated great excitement and some criticism. The project has been dubbed the Billion Dollar Map.
The mapping exercise will trigger an intensive investment in technology, according to a SciDevNet report. Satellite and airborne technologies will be deployed across the continent. The majority of the project’s cost will be in the acquisition of such technology.
For a few days in the beginning of February the world’s largest mining interests gathered in Cape Town. Diverse stakeholders from around the world converged for the annual African Mining Indaba, the continent’s largest mining conference. Over the last two decades the Indaba has been the site of extensive collaboration. Africa’s extractive industries attract billions of dollars of foreign direct investment.
This year, the Indaba was the site of World Bank’s ground breaking announcement that it plans to map the resources held in the ground in Africa.
Paulo de Sa is the head of the gas, oil and mining at World Bank’s Sustainable Energy Department. A better understanding of mineral wealth and geological formations would be helpful for the international mining industry’s African operations, he said. “The lack of geological data poses a barrier for companies to select a specific country as a mining destination.”
This problem compounds when one examines the difficulties of doing business or getting surveys started in a number of African countries. Africa is home to 19 of the 25 most-difficult countries in the world in which to do business, according to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.
It’s not just multinational mining corporations that will benefit from a greater understanding of the resources beneath African soil. Sub-Saharan African countries routinely negotiate mining concessions with multinational corporations for considerably less than the ultimate value of the concession.
World Bank cites a study where five such concessions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo sold for at least $1 billion less than they were worth. While lack of adequate mapping is not the only reason for such a discrepancy, it plays a major role, experts say.
what lies Beneath Africa’s Soil?
In addition to helping countries understand what lies beneath their soil, the information collected during the project could potentially have a wide variety of other uses. De Sa said he believes the images collected could have implications for water management, land use planning, infrastructure and biodiversity planning.
Despite the potential of the project, there are many questions.
The first is about funding. Although the map’s price tag is $1 billion, only 20 percent of the funding is currently accounted for. World Bank is committing $200 million to the project while the remaining $800 million is expected to come from African governments, donors and mining corporations. Assuming the original price tag is correct, this is a very large sum to make up before the project can get on its feet.
Second is the question of a continent weary of Western intervention, both in surveillance and with its mineral resources. For many years African thought leaders have decried the World Bank as an agent of post-imperialist Western control. This makes many across the continent question the bank’s true motives.
Michael Mawa is coordinator of the Strategic Leadership Forum in Kampala, Uganda. He likens a map of Africa’s mining resources to the U.S. National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program.
Writing in NewVision, Mawa said, “…(based on) the extent to which the U.S. was prepared to…spy on allies, it is frightening to imagine what they…could do with such strategic information about the resource map of the world’s most richly endowed continent in pursuit of their interests…”
Wile there are significant hurdles left to cross, World Bank says the future is bright for the Billion Dollar Map. “While we are still raising funds to make the Billion Dollar Map a reality, the overwhelming positive response from government and companies at the recent Mining Indaba assures us that there is great demand for this endeavor,” World Bank said.
Paul Collier, a scholar and expert on African economies, mentioned the Billion Dollar Map in his keynote speech at Indaba as an endeavor he has long supported with potential for catalyzing investment in the region.
The support of Collier, companies and governments should go a long way toward helping find funding and calm the fears of a continent weary of western intervention. Detailed satellite imagery and mapping could help African countries know the value of what lies beneath the soil in addition to shedding light on other public and infrastructural issues.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email email@example.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.