Exchanging Knowledge with the Geological Survey of Ethiopia

In April 2018, Dr. Dave Lefebure, Geosciences Specialist for CIRDI’s Supporting the Ministry of Mines (SUMM) project, travelled to the Omo region in southwest Ethiopia where he co-led a five-day field trip with Dr. Sisay Degu Nigussie and Mr. Ermias Hailemariam of the Geological Survey of Ethiopia (GSE). Dave is a former Chief Geologist of the Geological Survey of British Columbia (B.C.) which makes him well qualified to advise the GSE geologists, geophysicists, geochemists and other staff and management team.

As part of the SUMM project’s implementation phase, Dave is supporting the GSE staff as they develop plans on how to address capacity gaps that hinder the development of Ethiopia’s mining sector. The GSE has been struggling with several challenges, including retaining experienced staff who are leaving the government for jobs in the private sector. This not only reduces the GSE capabilities, it has limited the degree of mentoring for new geoscientists. Senior geologists from the Survey have traditionally shared their expertise with the junior staff through in-house training that supported their professional development.

“To develop a good mapper you not only need them to have an undergraduate degree in geology, and hopefully a Master’s or PhD, they need to have experienced people mentor them,” Dave says. “In B.C. geologists don’t really get up to speed at mapping until after about eight years of working with the rocks. Right now the GSE can’t hold on to their staff long enough to develop that expertise.”

Ethiopian government staff examine a volcanic outcrop. Photo: Behailu Mammo

Compounding the surveyors’ challenges is the limited outcrop—the bedrock—in parts of Ethiopia. “Unlike British Columbia, there has been no glaciation in Ethiopia so that’s led to a very strong weathering profile,” Dave says. “You get these thick red soils that are so characteristic of Africa. They hide the bedrock underneath them making it more difficult to map the geology. Also, the bedrock below the soil is weathered to depths of ten metres or more. You can sink your rock hammer right into some of the weathered rocks! That can make it harder to identify the rocks and understand their relationships.”

Outcrop along a highway of blasted bedrock. Note the blue-handled rock hammer embedded in a highly weathered brown dike that cuts light-coloured, granitic rock that is resistant to weathering. Photo: Dave Lefebure.

Dave is also advising the GSE how best to transition from mapping on a country-wide scale, which was completed recently, to a new program where smaller areas are mapped in more detail. There will be a learning period for staff and management over the next three to five years while they develop the new program. Moving from 1:250,000 to a 1:100,000 scale mapping requires a lot more attention to detail and some additional skills. With the change in scale, the older rocks usually reveal considerably more complexity.

“Mapping at the new scale will take many years because much smaller areas are covered annually,” says Dave.

The SUMM-sponsored field trip provided an excellent opportunity to see how Ethiopia’s new larger scale mapping project is proceeding. Photo: Behailu Mammo

The GSE must also work with its partners and clients to decide what parts of the country should be mapped for more detailed information that could lead to mineral exploration and mine development. Determining where to direct these surveys in a nation as geologically diverse as Ethiopia is a complex issue that requires planning and consolidation of existing data to target areas that have the best mineral potential.

Ethiopia’s population of over 100 million people is the second largest in Africa and is increasing at a rate of approximately two million people per year. Although the country’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, the GDP per capita is one of the lowest in the world. The government wants to boost the mining sector from 1.5 to 10 percent of the GDP by 2023. Although the nation has rich mineral deposits including gold, gemstones and industrial metals, its mining sector is still in the early stages of development. If Ethiopia’s resource wealth is developed in a sustainable and transparent manner, it could help lift its people out of poverty.

“The SUMM Team is working in partnership with the Government of Ethiopia to nurture mineral exploration activities and foster the extractive industry’s investment in Ethiopia,” says Dave. “This will be achieved through building the capacity of the Ministry of Mines, Petroleum and Natural Gas, and the Geological Survey of Ethiopia. Attracting the mining industry is a key role for geological surveys around the world.”