Africa: Diverse continent requires specific local knowledge

Posted on 30 October 2012

Oil and gas companies working offshore Africa must remain vigilant, retired US ambassador Jackson McDonald urged at the 2012 IADC Drilling Africa Conference last week. Piracy is increasing in the Gulf of Guinea, where 43 attacks have occurred so far this year.

By Linda Hsieh, managing editor

Most of Africa is not inherently more dangerous than many other regions of the world, but working in this vast and regionally diverse continent does entail risks and challenges, and companies are encouraged to establish “clear-headed strategies” before problems arise, retired US ambassador Jackson McDonald said at the 2012 IADC Drilling Africa Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, last week. This is especially important at a time when old challenges – weak institutions, poor governance, uneven social and economic development and corruption – are being compounded by 21st-century challenges such as piracy in the Indian Ocean offshore East Africa and increasingly in the Gulf of Guinea offshore West Africa, Mr McDonald said.

Underscoring the enormous magnitude of the African continent, Mr McDonald, who previously served as US ambassador to Guinea and Gambia and now serves as executive VP of Jefferson Waterman International, described logistical challenges associated with working in the region. “Such great expanses and such great distances combined with inadequate transportation infrastructure mean that project managers in the field must take into account extremely long logistics lines, and their operations must be capable of self-sustainment,” he said.

The lack of safe and reliable intra-regional air links in many parts of Africa also poses challenges for routine operations.

Further, Mr McDonald criticized the common misperception that Africa is all the same, emphasizing instead that it is an extraordinarily diverse place – geographically and culturally. “For investors and operators, this wide diversity of on-the-ground realities means that it is absolutely critical to acquire specific local knowledge, to develop specific local networks and to devise smart strategies adapted to each country of interest,” he urged. “No two countries are the same on this continent. They may share certain similarities, but each country warrants careful study and familiarization.”

For companies looking to operate in Africa, Mr McDonald advised that in addition to people with technical expertise – drilling engineering, geology or project management – another valuable addition to the team would be someone with an academic or humanitarian background in African culture, politics and history. “Such a regional expert would add an extra dimension to your team, provide deeper insights to the context in which you are operating and help you avoid cross-cultural faux-pas and misunderstandings before they occur.”

On the security front, Mr McDonald acknowledges that this is a picture that continues to evolve daily. “While the number of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean has declined over recent months, piracy is increasing in the Gulf of Guinea, where it has reached a record level of 43 attacks so far this year,” he said. Pirate attacks have spread from offshore Nigeria to neighboring countries – for example, Mr McDonald noted that, in October, pirates attacked a vessel offshore Cote d’Ivoire for the first time.

Because most states in Africa don’t have the navies or coast guards necessary to enforce their sovereign authority offshore, he continued, it’s critically important for companies operating offshore to remain vigilant and well informed about the security environment. Further, contingency planning must be completed before incidents arise.

For foreigners undertaking African operations, it’s also important to remember that Africa is a place structured on relationships. “In Africa, perhaps more than any other region of the world where I have lived and worked, it is important to build personal relationships with political leaders, government officials, traditional chiefs, religious leaders, the police, the military, prominent local business people, journalists, and other movers and shakers in the local society,” he said.

“This means recognizing your African counterparts’ status and identity. It also means conveying your own status and identity, what I would call ‘playing your role.’ It means showing your respect, respect and more respect.”

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