A sword to unlock natural and human capital

From prospecting for critical minerals to identifying geothermal resources, Xcalibur Smart Mapping’s airborne surveys enable countries to map their natural capital above and below ground. In parallel, the company’s foundation is dedicated to advancing human capital, with programmes that keep kids in school, teach life skills and inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Perhaps due to its origins in South Africa, Xcalibur Smart Mapping (henceforth “Xcalibur”) is keenly attuned to the human and physical potential that lies undiscovered and undeveloped in many parts of the world.

For more than 100 years, the company has helped governments and private entities assess the value of natural resources upon and beneath the surface of the Earth. But more recently, it has begun to complement its work with a voluntary drive by employees to uncover and develop human capital.

The core of Xcalibur’s work is carried out by a fleet of specialised aircraft that can fly over designated exploration areas, no matter how remote. The aircraft gather data using geophysical instruments, such as ground-penetrating radar and gravity meters, and technology developed and patented by Xcalibur.

Today, Xcalibur’s focus is on identifying renewable resources, including hydrogen, geothermal, water, forests and agricultural land. The company has flown more than 50 million kilometres to date, gathering data for more than 1,400 projects on six continents. Headquartered in Madrid, the company, with over 400 employees, is regarded as the global leader in airborne geophysics mapping.

Yet Laura Blanco Toro, Xcalibur’s ESG director and programme director for the Xcalibur Foundation, says the opportunity to unlock growth, development and investment opportunities is a big draw for employees of this niche tech company. Blanco has a background in marketing and humanitarian work, and she has seen first-hand how economic development is often constrained by a lack of knowledge of a country’s natural capital.

The opportunity cost is enormous. The World Economic Forum estimates that half of the world’s GDP – or about $44 trillion of economic value – depends upon natural capital: the geology, soils, air, water and all the living things that make human life possible. Too often, natural capital goes undervalued because nations don’t know what they’ve got. Blanco sees Xcalibur “playing a strategic role in helping governments document the wealth of their natural capital”, from mapping mineral deposits to estimating the acreage and density of forest cover.

Xcalibur is also developing technologies that estimate the economic impact that the responsible development of natural capital could have, particularly on developing countries.

Sustainability is a big driver in the organisation’s work. Xcalibur has conducted airborne surveys to find cobalt, rare earths and other minerals critical to the just energy transition. It is also involved in the search for natural deposits of hydrogen gas and sources of geothermal energy

More than that, its modus operandi – airborne surveying – has little or no impact on the environment compared to traditional prospecting work.  It is also more accurate, which reduces the need for drilling exploratory wells and other invasive practices. “All the data we provide allows clients to make more informed decisions, including how to become more sustainable themselves,” Blanco explains.

Three years ago, the board of Xcalibur set up the Fundación Xcalibur (Xcalibur Foundation) to give back to the countries and communities that had helped the company grow. This was in the midst of the pandemic and, among many worthy causes, the Foundation decided it could make the most impact by helping children who had dropped out of school because of Covid-19 disruption. According to Unicef, more than 600 million children were affected by partial or full school closures during the pandemic and in many countries, school dropout rates soared. While the Foundation initially set out to motivate children to resume their studies during the pandemic, its ultimate purpose is to improve access to education overall.

It began with a social sports school in the neighbourhood of Naguru, outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “Uganda is really big on football and sport is a great way to teach children values, keep them healthy and inspire them to stick with their studies,” Blanco says. To do so, Fundación Xcalibur partnered with Youth Sports Uganda (a local sports for development NGO) and the Real Madrid Foundation. It consulted with the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports, organised monthly socio-educational workshops and also visited the families of children enrolled in the programme. In Uganda, and many other developing countries, schooling must be paid for, so social workers visited families to persuade them to send their children back into education.

Later, the sports school expanded its remit to include topics like personal hygiene. Coaches noticed that girls dropped out of the sports programme at certain times of the month, so the club introduced a course in menstrual hygiene management, made pads available and taught girls how to use them, and taught boys how to respect and support their female classmates. Two years on, there are 240 children enrolled in the sports club and more than half of them are girls.

The Kampala programme has been followed by other social sports projects worldwide, including a basketball academy in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a sports academy in the outskirts of Medellín, in Colombia.

The Foundation also has two active projects that focus on promoting gender equality by supporting personal and professional development for young women. One of these initiatives is underway in Ghana.

Though the Foundation is run separately from the company, Xcalibur was keen to get employees involved as volunteers. Blanco saw an opportunity for them to do this by mentoring young African women enrolled at the African Science Academy in Ghana, a STEM A-level school for gifted girls from low-income backgrounds across Africa who want to pursue careers in STEM. Most of Xcalibur’s employees, she explains, are geophysicists, geologists, engineers and technicians, and partnering with the school was a great way to get them involved.

The African Science Academy is based in Tema and is fully funded by the African Gifted Foundation, a charity focused on developing Africa’s future female leaders. The project HERoSTEM, was launched by Xcalibur in February this year and already 27 employees have signed up to take part. They will mentor and give talks to students at the African Science Academy in Ghana.

“Young women in STEM need role models. They need to believe they can do it and they need to see that STEM is not a male world anymore,” says Blanco. Initial feedback from employees suggests they find participation highly motivating. “It has increased their sense of belonging. They are really proud to be part of a company that does these things.”

For a company that exists to unlock the value of natural capital, unlocking the potential of human capital comes as second nature. The Foundation has an ambitious plan for 2024-25 with new projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Blanco looks forward to a time when all forms of capital – natural, social, human and financial – are equally valued.