Interviews

Africa’s Mr Petroleum

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Samuel Dossou-Aworet, the founder of Petrolin, has been an important figure in Africa’s hydrocarbon sector for the last two and a half decades. Stephen Williams learnt something of his story at a meeting in Cape Town.

Petrolin is an oil company I created in 1992, the main goal being to link my own international network with first-class international partners to create African oil and gas companies across the continent, Samuel Dossou-Aworet says.

His success in doing so has led to upstream exploration and production projects in half a dozen African countries, and a number of complementary initiatives in areas such as infrastructure, aviation, real estate and telecommunications.

The beginning of this bold venture dates back to 1994, when just a couple of months after the democratic dispensation in South Africa that saw Nelson Mandela elected the first black president, Dossou-Aworet travelled to South Africa to clinch a deal with Engen (formerly Mobil) to expand the energy company’s operations across the continent.

But, in fact, Dossou-Aworet’s story began 20 years beforehand. He says: “I am a petroleum engineer, schooled in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, who studied petroleum engineering and chemistry at Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Pétrole et des Moteurs in Paris, France. I graduated in 1972, worked two years in France and then in 1974 started working in Gabon’s ministry of oil as advisor to the minister.

“In 1977, I created the directorate for oil and gas as an entity within the ministry, setting the regulatory standards and registration procedures for oil businesses operating in Gabon,” Dossou-Aworet explains.

Gabon did not have a state oil company at that time for many reasons. The country was very much considered the chasse privée (private hunting grounds) of France, the former colonial power. Before that, Elf – the French state’s oil company – was in a very powerful position and held sway over large areas of Gabon for exploration.

“As soon as their long-term licenses expired,” Dossou-Aworet says, “I took the acreage from Elf and divided it into multiple smaller permits, establishing production sharing contracts and the tenders that attracted other international companies.”

The French may not have been amused, but the Gabonese state awarded Dossou-Aworet with honorary citizenship (he was actually born in Porto Novo, Benin). He went on to represent Gabon at OPEC where he chaired the Board of Governors, and helped found the African Petroleum Producers Association.

However, it became clear that Dossou-Aworet believed his future lay in the private sector. He established his company, Petrolin, in London, UK in 1992 – also creating a subsidiary in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I started as a consultant, later on beginning trading, before embarking on exploration activities to find our own oil,” Dossou-Aworet recalls. Petrolin’s success in bidding for tenders in Africa saw the company expand significantly and Petrolin in Geneva became Petrolin SA, a company entity in its own right rather than simply a subsidiary of the UK company.

By 1994, inspired by the presidency of Nelson Mandela, Petrolin had partnered with Engen in South Africa to create Energy Africa, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and active in pan-African exploration activities. But by the early 2000s, Engen had attracted the attention of the Malaysian state oil company Petronas, who had begun to quietly buy shares in the company prior to launching an outright hostile bid.

So began one of two major battles that Dossou-Aworet has had, whether in the boardroom or the courts. Determined to keep Energy Africa in African ownership, a complex boardroom tussle began to stop the Malaysian company “nationalising” Energy Africa (as Dossou-Aworet describes it).

“This is what Petrolin is about. We partner with international players, providing indigenous knowledge as to how the oil and gas game works in Africa, allowing them to invest in the continent.”

“I started working with the other small shareholders [in Engen and Energy Africa] and Petronas’ bid actually failed to buy sufficient stock for the takeover,” Dossou-Aworet explains.

“I went to Kuala Lumpur and they were very fair, proposing to sell the share in Energy Africa that they had amassed. Then, in 2004, the search began for partners with the financial resources to buy into Energy Africa.”

It was at this juncture that a small but highly successful Irish company, Tullow Oil, entered the picture. Tullow, since its inception, had always viewed small oil fields in Africa, neglected by the majors, as viable business propositions.

By acquiring Energy Africa in a $500m deal, the company doubled in size, giving Tullow Oil the ability to substantially increase production to 54,000 boepd (50% oil; 50% gas) and exploration assets in Uganda, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia and Congo Brazzaville, among others.

“This is what Petrolin is about,” Dossou-Aworet says. “We partner with international players, providing indigenous knowledge as to how the oil and gas game works in Africa, allowing them to invest in the continent.”

Following this corporate drama over Energy Africa, in the ensuing years Petrolin has built an enviable portfolio of hydrocarbon resource assets and amassed small but significant stakes in a number of
oil and gas companies active in Africa.

For example, it has strategic partnerships with leading companies, and a stake in ND Western Ltd, a major gas supplier in Nigeria. In addition, it holds an significant interest in Seplat Petroleum Development Co, a pioneering Nigerian company, the first to dual list on the London Stock Exchange and on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Seplat’s portfolio includes six blocks in the Niger Delta area.

Elsewhere in Africa, Petrolin Group owns a share of Surestream Petroleum Ltd, a UK company with exploration assets in DR Congo, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. Aside from these major shareholdings, the way that Petrolin has always worked, since its inception, is to find the new idea, in other words the commercial opportunity, and then the international partners to take that opportunity to fruition.

“We negotiate with local companies, especially those working with marginal fields,” Dossou-Aworet says.

“[We assist] By funding them and setting up the way to deal with marginal field production, by consolidating output from these fields. This allows small companies to have a far better control of their cash flow.”

However, Dossou-Aworet’s vision extends further than the oil and gas sector. “Africa has huge potential, and most of the money I earn in Europe I put into Africa, We can develop the continent.”

Our conversation just touched on Dossou-Aworet’s latest project, the Benin Backbone initiative. Dossou-Aworet has already sunk €40m into this enterprise which includes an innovative infrastructure project encompassing rail, dry ports, deep water ports, an international airport and road upgrades.

The Benin Backbone is Dossou-Aworet’s contribution to the development of Africa’s trade in general, and West Africa’s in particular, opening a trade corridor from a new deep water port at Sémé, adjacent to Benin’s commercial capital Cotonou, north to a dry port at Parakou, and north to Niger.

But the project was nearly derailed by Bolloré, the giant French logistics company, which tried to take over the railway concession, leading to a long legal tussle (the second major battle that Dossou-Aworet has faced).

Eventually, Dossou-Aworet was victorious, and he is now overseeing the first stage – the rail link from the coast to a dry port at Parakou. It’s an African-led project with blue-chip international partners.

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