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Elephant in the grass
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Features

The article opposite was commissioned by a bilingual financial magazine in Gabon.

Gabon's Growing its Own Timber

David Winter argues that if Gabon wants to secure its future as one of Africa's leading oil producing nations, then it needs to start “growing its own timber” before it is too late.

A government report last year estimated that foreign workers held 1,893 of the 8,590 posts in the Gabonese oil industry, with nationals occupying just 17 percent of available executive positions. If Gabon wants to secure its future as one of Africa's leading oil producing nations, then it needs to start “growing its own timber” before it is too late.

More than a generation after oil was first discovered in Gabon in the early 1970s, one issue unites the industry's major players more than any other: the raw materials are just not up to scratch.

But it is not Gabon’s vast supplies of black gold that have been found wanting. Rather, it is a lack of local expertise that is causing concern as the Gabonese government faces up to the fact that there is a national skills shortage at all levels of the oil industry.

In October 2010 President Ali Bongo, responding to pressure from vocal unions such as the ONEP, announced plans to impose a 10 percent cap on foreign oil sector workers and to prioritise local job-seekers over their foreign counterparts.

But for a more sustainable future Gabon has to find a way to grow its own timber. And it is here that foreign oil companies are playing a significant role, their plans to increase the number of skilled local workers based on a simple formula: training, training and more training - not just for new recruits to the sector but also, crucially, for senior management.

Shell Gabon, which first started operating in the country in the 1960s, has been promoting overseas bursaries for Gabonese students for several decades. And in 2010 ENI Gabon, part of the Italian ENI group, launched its "Citizen Programme", in which Masuku University will become a training hub for final-year geology graduates. There is more good news, too: experienced executives from the state oil ministry will soon be able to pursue their professional development at the renowned ENI Corporate University in Milan.

Total has resolved to take training a stage further. Earlier this year the French multinational signed a public-private agreement that will lead to the construction of a National Institute of Petrol and Gas at Port-Gentil. With courses in everything from oil exploration to the commercialisation of hydrocarbons, hopes are high that the institute will generate Gabon's very own oil elite, local men and women who will pass their technical and managerial skills on to the next generation of young Gabonese.