Missed opportunities at an Africa-Australia research meeting

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[PERTH, AUSTRALIA] Where was the research at the recent Africa Australia Research Forum's mining and agriculture meeting?
As a PhD student soon to qualify as a doctor of science communication, and someone with a growing interest in the use of mining for development, I was on the lookout for challenging but worthy and ambitious ideas at the 'Mining, Agriculture and Development: Bread from Stones?' conference organised jointly by the Crawford Fund and the Africa Australia Research Forum (25-28 August).
It had a stellar line-up, including ministers, former presidents, CEOs and research centre directors. The stage was set for an informative and inspiring conference.

I took my seat at the conference — laptop at the ready, eager to take copious notes on research agendas and policy. But I left frustrated, with a strong sense of missed opportunities.
There was a lot of talk about transforming Africa and calls for improved governance but no discussion of the type of research required to achieve these goals. Even Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana, was vague when asked what the big research questions in the area of mining and agriculture were.
Agriculture and mining are important sectors in both Australia and Africa.

Australia's resource sector accounts for six per cent of its economy, with the leading export, iron ore, valued at $164 billion and accounting for 52 per cent of Australia's total exports in 2011-2012. Australian agriculture exports account for more than 13 per cent of merchandise exports and had a total export value of $36 billion in 2012.

Although Africa is richly endowed with mineral resources and is the top producer of diamonds, gold and platinum metals, the continent derives 30 to 40 per cent of its GDP and almost 60 per cent of its total export earnings from agriculture.

“In this technological age, how can people still be using hoes for farming?”

Hudson Mtegha, 
University of Witwatersrand

There are some obvious conflicts between mining and agriculture.

For a start, they compete for the same resources: land, water and human capital.

But if a number of challenges — such as a lack of cross-ministerial collaboration, community participation, science and technology expertise, revenue transparency and impact assessment capacity — can be overcome, then there could be synergy between them. Together, they could support the development of infrastructure, technological innovation and mechanisation, employment and income generation.

As Hudson Mtegha, a senior lecturer in mineral policy at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, told me at the conference: "In this technological age, how can people still be using hoes for farming?"

There were, however, mixed messages on what shape a mining-agriculture nexus could take.

Some speakers advocated for mining companies extending their corporate social responsibility to improve food security for local communities; others argued they should invest in commercial farming; and some simply suggested mining companies should procure food locally.

Meanwhile, Peter Sullivan, CEO of Resolute Mining, which operates in Mali and Tanzania, made it clear in his presentation that mining companies were not an arm of government and should not be expected to engage in activities beyond business.

The agriculturalists such as Florence Chenoweth, Liberia's minister for agriculture, highlighted agriculture as the main driver of Africa's social and economic transformation, and the role that women can play in that.

Although no key research questions stood out, pulling the threads of presentations and discussions together, some ideas have started to emerge in my mind: best practices for multi-sector government communication and coordination, assessments of mining companies' corporate social responsibilities and ways of managing conflict and disputes. Hopefully the conference was just a first step in getting the discussion going on researching potential synergies between two strong economic drivers — agriculture and mining.