What’s The Story With Africa?

THE NEXT LEVEL: Exporting T&T Energy Know-how


In the history of mankind, the last century has probably seen more change and certainly has been the period of the most rapid rate of change than any other. The economic, social and cultural upheavals of that period have thrown up experiences that have previously not been available to the vast majority of people, governments or businesses. Even so, all of the hyperbole of the century probably pales against the changes of the last fifty years.
What is remarkable about the experiences of these past 50 years is that there are many among us who have lived through, been part of, or created some of the changes that have shaped this world. In Trinidad and Tobago, we have a disproportionate (in relation to our population) share of these experiences in the world of oil and natural gas.
In our one hundred years of commercial oil production and nearly fifty years of commercial natural gas production, we have experienced almost every imaginable scenario that a country can find itself in, relative to these two industries – the whole spectrum, from high to low, good to bad of every factor that affects the industries: status of the world economy; war and peace; commodity prices; exploration, production and construction costs; reserves; investment climate; activities; tax regimes; institutional, legal and administrative frameworks and capability; local services and ownership; capital availability; skills. You name it we’ve either been through the best of times or the worst of times.
At every time though, we (Trinidad and Tobago) have had to get on with it. We made decisions and took actions. Most of these we have had to live with for a long time. We have made good choices and bad ones. Many of the latter we could not turn back; some we addressed when we had the skill, know-how and/or courage to so do. We have learnt valuable lessons from all of these experiences. Look at us today. Through our eyes, we see all the failings, the problems. We all know how we could have done better.
Not so through the eyes of many an outsider; especially if that is someone who walked with us through colonialism and independence; who shared our sufferings, our struggles and our hopes. Someone, who like us, has worked hard to extract the wealth of their nation – resources above and below the ground and the skills and labour of their people, in the expectation that it would lead to a better quality of life for their new nations. They look at us and find it remarkable what we have achieved; how we have done so by standing on our own feet; by having the self confidence to Do the things that we were always told we don’t have the experience to do.
They walk or drive through Point Lisas, Point Fortin, Port of Spain, Scarborough or La Romain and marvel at the progress we have made – in their own lifetimes. If we can do it, surely they can!
That is what the Trinidad and Tobago oil and gas story inspires in visitors from Africa and other countries as far away and as diverse as Timor-Leste – the self confidence that we can achieve bigger things than we are given credit for.
But more than that, they recognise, as few of us do, that whatever we did and learnt was done by only a handful of people – men and women of immense capability, national pride and conviction; working together with a common mission – to get this industry to work for us. They recognise that as they do, we faced adversity and self doubt and yet some how managed to overcome it. They look at us and see people like them doing all the things that are required to run a global industry – operating and managing billion dollar plants, oil fields, service companies – all by ourselves.
This is what Africa wants from us. How did we do it? What are the pieces of the energy eco-system that we built? What did we do right and what did we do wrong? What did we learn from those experiences? How can they avoid them? Can we hold their hands in this process?
And therein lies the advantage Trinidad and Tobago has above other countries. We are small, non-threatening and we have walked the path African countries now find themselves on.
In a report titled “Lions on the Move: The Progress and of Potential African Economies” published in June 2010, the McKinsey Global Institute observed: “Africa’s collective economy grew very little during the last two decades of the 20th century. But sometime in the late 1990’s, the continent began to stir. GDP picked up and then bounded ahead, rising faster and faster through 2008. Today, while Asia’s tiger economies continue to grow rapidly, we foresee the potential rise of economic lions in Africa’s future.”
The current and projected economic growth in Africa is nothing short of spectacular. Couple this with vastly improving governance, health care, oil, gas and mineral reserves and 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable lands; it is no wonder it is becoming the next investment hot spot.
Having spent time and listened to governments and State companies in a range of countries from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and Togo in the Gulf of Guinea, to Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda in East Africa and Angola to the south, it is amazing the admiration, goodwill and trust that little Trinidad and Tobago has on the continent. It is remarkable too, how underprepared we are to use that to the benefit of all involved.
Many African countries have reached out to us, at great expense, for assistance. Several individuals, businesses, organisations and institutions have reciprocated. T&T is working with Africa, through our businessmen and women, foreign missions and training institutions. Africa is benefitting. But all the efforts are small and unco-ordinated.
A former Nigerian Finance Minister, on a visit to T&T in 2009 said, “we are looking for your help, not charity. We know you have valuable skills that can be of help to us. We are willing to pay for this.”
The help sought is in many areas – as investors, sometimes to hold the hands of State companies as they engage other foreign partners in a venture that is new to them; as strategy advisors; for operational and administrative support (you don’t get experience in a classroom, only by doing it); as business partners to transfer technology and know-how; and in education – we have had students from Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea in the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Requests from Uganda and Ghana have not been fulfilled for one reason or another.
Given our size and reach, we are recognised around the world for performing well above our “weight class”. In the case of Africa, we are underperforming, however. What may be missing is the co-ordination and leadership that is required to convey a country’s capabilities, as distinct from the capabilities of a few countrymen. We have a chance to make a big impact on the world (once more). African countries are asking for education, experience, investment, services and partnerships.
Like T&T when we started the journey of growing the industries, in Africa it is the governments, through State companies, who are making the major decisions and investments. They look to their peers in T&T for the support in leading the effort. From our side, we have different arms of government – Energy, Foreign Affairs, Trade, Tertiary Education, State Companies, with different roles, differently (if at all) engaged. There has been little effort to co-ordinate the efforts or position a leader in this effort.
In this case the shoe is on the other foot – in T&T, the State sector is accustomed to being the one pursued to make a deal. Here deals are being presented to us and we now have to pursue them. This requires a different set of skills. So while Africa is setting its sights on learning from us, we too have to learn from and about Africa, if we want to do business successfully there.
The prize is big, for all parties. The effort should not be underestimated. Nor should we underestimate the effort required or the competition we face. India and China are aggressively pursuing African investments, and, as Western countries, companies and their governments are walking hand-in-hand.
As a small country the value of the learning experiences we have had in the past 50 years was magnified by virtue of there being only a relatively small pool of people who have been involved. As they worked in close contact and are forced to multi-task, they covered a wide range of activities, gaining wide and deep experiences. Many have left our shores, but there is still a rich pool that is virtually untapped outside of T&T.
As we celebrate Emancipation in T&T, it may be worth asking whether we are prepared to think and behave differently about ourselves, understanding the value of all the nation’s resources, including our people and their knowledge and experience, to use these to free ourselves from the boundaries of our islands.
Africa beckons. Are we ready to respond?

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