African Resources

There is a map of the world on my office wall. What I like about this particular map is that the mapmaker paid particular attention to getting the scale right. That means Africa gets it proper gigantic sizing. It is truly a massive landmass.

It’s also fitting that it sits close to the center, because Africa is a big part of the future of natural resource exploration and production. In some sense, it’s retaking its historical pre-eminence. For instance, consider the former rich trading cities in the East.

Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Mumbai, Mangalore… all trading cities along the fabled rim of the Indian Ocean. “I’ve visited to them all and more,” says an old sailor named Bwama Shafi Ahmed. The quote comes from an older issue of National Geographic I stumbled on while helping clean out my son’s room. “From here in Africa, we sailed with ivory, mangrove, coconuts, tortoise and cowrie shells. From Arabia, we brought dates, whale oil, carpets and incense. From India, pots, glassware and cloth. Trade was our life, you see.”

A little more from the old sailor, who speaks poetically of his trade: “The wind in our sails made us rich, just as it did our ancestors. In the season, dozens of foreign dhows would arrive – booms 100 feet long or more, great sails white against the sky. And at night! Hundreds of dhows big and small anchored in the harbor, their cooking fires shining like stars in the night.”

The east African trading cities thrived between the 12th and 18th centuries, with ships sailing in and out on monsoon winds.

Africa had good harbors and plentiful fish and lots to trade with India and Arabia. Ties between India and Africa, especially, strengthened under the common influence of Islam and the Portuguese. (Portugal colonized both Goa and Africa’s coast.) Africa is also home to a large population of ethnic Indians, which helps bridge trade further. One of Africa’s better known industrialists – Manu Chandaria – was born in Kenya, but his parents are from the Indian state of Gujarat.

These historical ties and those old trade routes are reviving once again. In the spring, Delhi hosted the first Indian-African summit. Trade between India and Africa tops $25 billion per year. Nigeria, for example, accounts for 10 percent of India’s crude oil imports. But China’s trade with Africa is a lot more – $55 billion annually. The reason for this boom in trade? A hunger for the natural resources of Africa.

Africa increasingly is right in the middle of the global quest for natural resources. It has the highest ratio of light and sweet crude in the world – the best-quality stuff you can find. And most of its oil – some 83 percent – comes from large fields that produce at least 100 million barrels per day. Meaningful amounts of premium oil in large fields explain why Africa attracts so much investment. Between 2002-2006, the big oil companies tripled their spending in Africa.

The recent discovery of oil sands in the Congo by Eni, a big Italian oil group, lends more credence to the idea of Africa as the future of global oil supply. Eni hasn’t said how much resource its vast acreage might hold. But the Financial Times reports early samples suggest that “The area as a whole could hold more oil than Eni’s entire reserves of 7 billion barrels of oil equivalent.” That would put Eni’s resource on par with the huge Kashagan field in Kazakhstan. Eni potentially doubled its oil reserves with this one African find.

Right now, Africa puts out only about 12 percent of the world’s oil output. By 2012, that could be 30 percent. No wonder, then, that it has become such a competitive battleground for the oil companies. In a recent auction, India’s state oil company bid $321 million for an Angolan oil block. A Chinese oil giant bid $725 million. Guess who won?

It’s not just about oil, either. Africa holds tremendous amounts of natural gas, minerals and natural resources of all kinds. Much of it is in places that are easy to do business in. But there is often a fragile social fabric, which seems ever on the brink of civil war or a coup or worse.

In Niger, for example, you will find some of the world’s largest deposits of uranium. Niger plans to double its output over the next several years. Companies from all over the world – Australia, Canada, China, India and France – scramble to lock down claims. But the uranium deposits lie in the ancestral home of the nomadic Tuareg. The Blue Men of the Desert (so-called due to the color of their favored indigo dyes) return to old ceremonial grounds to find red flags marking uranium deposits. The result is predictable – battles between the Niger army and Tuareg fighters, and bloodshed.

Yet the rewards dangling before the world’s eyes are so great. Many companies will walk the edge of that precipice for a shot at glory.

Chris Mayer
July 28, 2008

P.S. Companies willing to work in troubled and often dangerous parts of Africa are putting themselves at great risk. But the rewards they could be in store for more than outweigh any potential risks they may encounter. But while we wait for Africa to burst forth with its natural gifts, a similar investment renaissance has taken place in another untapped continent. The rewards here are already pouring in, and many people have been made very wealthy in the process.