Kenya Oil
President Uhuru Kenyatta flanked by Deputy President William Ruto flags off the crude oil trucks during the Inauguration of the Ngamia 8 Early Oil Pilot Scheme, Turkana County.

Picture a meeting of the minds and rubbing of shoulders by academia and Big Oil. It is probably not a picture you often imagine let alone see in real life. Big Oil has, for years, been caricatured in both academia and the popular imagination as rapaciously digging up the earth, frittering away the natural resources of multiple countries, sitting on mountains of cash and fiddling whilst the world burns on account of fossil fuel-fuelled global warming. Academia, on the other hand, may provide nuanced and informed perspectives on any given issue, but perspectives that are all too often pedantic and out of touch given its lofty, ivory tower perch.

Picture a meeting of the minds and rubbing of shoulders by academia and Big Oil. It is probably not a picture you often imagine let alone see in real life. Big Oil has, for years, been caricatured in both academia and the popular imagination as rapaciously digging up the earth, frittering away the natural resources of multiple countries, sitting on mountains of cash and fiddling whilst the world burns on account of fossil fuel-fuelled global warming. Academia, on the other hand, may provide nuanced and informed perspectives on any given issue, but perspectives that are all too often pedantic and out of touch given its lofty, ivory tower perch.

Bridging the Gap Between the Extractives Industries and Academia in East Africa

So when on February 16, 2016 I attended a conference at Strathmore University on “Bridging the Gap Between the Extractives Industries and Academia in East Africa,” co-hosted by hosted by Strathmore University’s Strathmore Extractives Industry Centre (SEIC) and The Aga Khan University East African Institute (EAI), I was impressed to see Big Oil and academia in the same room discussing ways to encourage collaboration between the two sectors.

My observation, as an invited panellist and part of very interested audience, is that this meeting laid some of the groundwork for cross-sectoral cooperation and collaboration, although more work is needed. The conference was capably and eloquently chaired by Dr. Melba K. Wasuna, Director of SEIC and Dr. Alex O. Awiti, Director EAI. The fact that conference was underwritten by various sponsors, to include Nairobi’s TripleOKLaw Advocates and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)— arguably the leading organization in wildlife conservation and endangered species protection—suggests both sides probably are open to engaging. This is especially clear from the diverse audience the conference drew from different sectors:  Big Oil and other extractives industries represented by Tullow Oil, the National Oil Corporation of Kenya and Base Titanium Ltd, academics and civil society groups. In fact, professors from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Abertay University in Scotland not only delivered keynote speeches but participated in roundtable sessions featuring participants from the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations, Uganda Christian University, the Centre for Minority Rights and Development and the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, to name just a few.

I was invited to participate in an afternoon conference session that looked at promoting innovation, technological advancement and new systems to improve the planning and management of the next wave of energy and minerals-driven growth, particularly in East Africa. I was asked to speak about how academia can help the extractives industries improve planning, management, promote innovation, and find long-term solutions that can mitigate its risk exposure – particularly at the political and socio-economic levels.  Let me make four points, before I highlight what academics do or can do contribute to the industry.

Four Key Points

First of all, and as highlighted by Dr. Greg Bremner of Abertay University, academia must anticipate and react to global crises. Academics must be predictive and demonstrate liquid thinking. They could have and should have predicted, for instance, the global slump in oil prices.

Second, academics can take stock of Africa’s vast mineral and other natural resources. Dr.HanriMostert of the University of Cape Town starkly noted that Africa does not even know its true mineral and fossil fuels wealth, holdings and potential. Simply put, this wealth has neither been explored fully nor have past and presently-discovered resources been properly catalogued. Institutions such as SEIC are perfectly placed to do so. By talking amongst one another and with Big Oil and other extractives industries stakeholders, academics can add to the African Mining Legislation Atlas ( thereby letting Africans actually know their mineral wealth, develop better regulatory policies and better exploit these resources.

Third, academia needs to come to terms with the fact that the extractives sector is an important player in the broader nature-science & technology-society (NSTS) orbit, as my good friend and a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Dick BosireMaragia, suggests.  The opportunities available to the industries, the challenges they confront and contributions they can make ought to be seen through the lens of the interdependent NSTS relationship. Academia is the soft tissue that links all of them. Simply put, this is why all disciplines—sciences (social, natural, physical etc.), humanities etc.—are relevant and ought to be involved in addressing these issues.

Fourth, government needs to be involved. The Strathmore University conference was a case in point. Civil society groups were well-represented alongside academia and the extractives sector. But governments, national, county, local and regional, were minimally represented at the conference. K keynote addresses provided by Professor GituroWainaina, Acting Director General of Kenya Vision 2030 and Australia’s Acting High Commissioner, John Feakes, were the exception.

Academic Contributions to Infrastructure, Development and Extractive Efforts

So what more can academia do? In order to demonstrate the role academics such as myself and others in attendance at the conference play, I highlighted my research and publications – much of it available on Political Engineering. This research has focused on, for example, the Uganda-Kenya Crude Oil Pipeline, the rebuilding of the Mombasa- Nairobi oil pipeline, the LAPSSET Corridor Project, and, most recently, Uganda’s expression of interest in building an alternative crude oil pipeline from Hoima to Tanga in Tanzania. This research utilizes unique and useful political science and political economy approaches, thereby highlighting the importance that the politics of socio-economic development, oil and gas extraction and regional cohesion play.

In short, academic studies and publications such as those on the UKCOP and LAPSSET Corridor that combine multiple academic disciplines – engineering, social sciences, economics, business and management – are potentially a goldmine of information for the major and minor players in the extractives industries. For example, my research performed on the proposed pipelines crossing East Africa, portions of which have already been published in The Kenya Engineer and others soon to be published in Oil & Gas Journal in the United States, demonstrates fundamental weaknesses and strengths in the planning and design stages by applying theories, equations and modelling in a way that is arguably more complex, but perhaps more revelatory than many consultancy studies. The research points out security risks, development potential and costs and attempts to address issues surrounding land ownership in East African territories that host a multiplicity of competing tribes and interests. It also highlighted the attempt to maximize power – in traditional political science parlance – of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and other regional and international states and stakeholders. For example, will Uganda and Kenya cooperate functionally to build the UKCOP? What would stop Uganda from doing so and choosing, instead, to build a pipeline with Tanzania to Tanga? And what will happen if Ethiopia withdraws its interest and support for the UKCOP and the LAPSSET Corridor, given their recent partnership with Djibouti to reportedly construct a 550-kilometre fuel pipelinethat would provide an alternative to any pipeline constructed through northern Kenya? These are prescient issues and questions that need to be addressed by both academia and the extractives industries – as well as governments. Descriptive and predictive findings from academic research should represent a starting point for more specialized research; a means to an end. But the research should also be an end in and of itself.

Fostering a Mutually-Constitutive Relationship

Given the nature of extraction – real and potential – in East Africa and the Horn of Africa and the complexities of the geo-political situation, a robust level of cooperation between academia and the extractives industries would likely pay excellent, long- and short-term dividends. But what stops academia from being more involved in research for the extractives industries?

1. Academic bias: Many in academia traditionally align themselves politically on the left of the spectrum, at least in the American sense; i.e. they bring a heavy bias against extraction efforts regardless of the costs and benefits.

2. No money = irrelevant: If no money is involved in an academic study, for example, the study is not worthy of extractive industries’ attention. Simply put, the current industry favours consultancies. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. Yet this is a systemic challenge because consultancies by their very nature very often rely on third-party information and their findings are just as often opaque; i.e. they are proprietary and often do not see the light of day. Contrast this with academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals or provided as papers to relevant industry players. Just because money is often not involved in academic studies and research does not mean they are irrelevant.

3. Money = funny business: Correspondingly, if money is involved, the academic study may be skewed to fit a particular agenda, say Big Oil’s agenda. This can lead to falsified studies, as recently highlighted in skewed and doctored academic studies about the effects of the fracking industry to land and people in the U.S.  However, it is no secret that oil and gas industry players, in particular, are often only interested in short-term applicable developments. That is, scientific and academic research are harnessed to develop practical solutions and technologies for short-term commercial use and maximum financial gain. This short time horizon is often at odds with more theoretical academic studies. Yet, this can be corrected by tailoring academic studies to fit the time horizons of various stakeholders. This could pay big dividends in the end. Extractives industries players should be cognizant of the fact that they are often actively involved in regions for decades. The case of oil extraction in the Delta Region of Nigeria is a case in point.  They should adopt long time horizons, in other words.

4. See no evil, hear no evil: Extractives industries stakeholders to face up to the fact that they will often hear things they do not want to hear. But by paying attention to concerns raised by academics over, say, land usage rights, pastoral patterns or political moves to extract concessions and finances from the extractives industries, risks may be mitigated and projected costs may more accurately reflect reality.

Recently, as the director of a research institute in Somalia, one of my major goals – and headaches – was to foster multi-disciplinary research projects that brought multiple departments and faculties under one roof. By doing so, we academics were able to perform some very exciting research that involved social scientists, veterinary and agricultural scientists, economists and business scholars from multiple universities in the region under study; i.e. Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and the Gulf. Why not do the same for the extractives industries with key academic players in East Africa? Academia could bring together social scientists, economists, engineering scientists and business management specialists to study short- and long-term effects of oil and gas extraction in the region?

Best Practices: More Conferences, More Engineers and No Poaching

The good news is that this is possible. The good news is conferences such as that hosted by Strathmore University and the Aga Khan East African Institute exist. The good news is that the Strathmore University Extractives Industry Centre exists. It is well-placed to perform studies such as those described above. The other good news is that the extractives industries are already a major driver of funding for academic research at the university level.  So what can be done to further cooperation?

1. Extractives Industries Centres: More centres like SEIC need to be established. This seems to be a growing trend. For example, in 2015 a new Oil and Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC)was set up to work with SMEs to deliver innovative solutions to the key challenges facing businesses operating in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS).   £10.6 million funding was approved by the Scottish Funding Council to create OGIC.  Its role is to enable the development of new technologies that are needed to bring down operating costs, improve productivity in the UKCS and address innovation requirements in decommissioning; i.e. exactly the items Strathmore University’s conference was attempting to proactively address.

2. Thou Shalt Not Poach: The extractives industries should arguable hire highly-demanded engineers on a part-time basis, allowing the engineers and SMEs to continue teaching at universities. There is currently a global shortage of professors to train students in the extractives industries precisely because they have been poached by these very industries. This should stop as the current trajectory is unsustainable. Again, industries stakeholders must adopt long term time horizons.

3. More Research Needed: Universities must ensure that extractives centres such as SEIC resemble and perform research in a manner akin to more traditional, professional academic research centres. This will likely ensure broader, nuanced and holistic studies are performed with input from various academic specialists.

4. Growing Global Talent: The extractives industries can work closer with universities globally to grow new talent. This will ensure a steady stream of qualified graduates to work in the various industries while offering excellent public relations to industry players. It also strengthens targeted universities exponentially.

5. The Soft Science are useful, too: The extractives industries should be more receptive to the “soft sciences,” such as political science, history, sociology and anthropology. By working with academics – even hiring them – the mitigation of political, economic and social risk can be decreased and actual costs will likely go down.

6. Take off your Blinkers: Academics need to shake off the view that extractives industries are all bad for the environment, all bad for development and all bad for everyone but industry executives in Houston, Dubai and London. The distrust felt by both academia and the extractives industries needs to be overcome. Academics want nothing more than to see their studies gain attention and validation. The extractives industries could work to ensure relevant literature is reviewed, understood – even used – by utilizing a resource and research arm. SEIC provides a perfect example.

7. Training Engineers and Technicians: Academia and the extractives industries must make more of an effort to train qualified engineers in the large quantities needed in order to bring large- and small-scale infrastructure and development projects to fruition. This is an ongoing problem in East Africa, to include Kenya. Should academic institutions and the extractives industries join forces and put money where their mouths are, the education of engineers and other qualified – and needed – technicians could be revolutionized. This can happen quickly right here in Kenya if done correctly and methodically.

Final Note

So what is the final piece of good news? It is that that colleges and universities worldwide, to include right here in Kenya, have developed strong ties to various stakeholders in the extractives industries. Therefore, the potential already exists for large-N, long-term studies as well as shorter-term risk analyses, based on the findings of multiple academic disciplines. Purely political or socio-economic studies should also be considered and should be increasingly valued by the industry. Some of these studies may be done as part of an academic’s work, research interests and desire to publish. However, by ensuring transparent mechanisms for the funding of such studies, extractives centres and attempting to separate politics from research, the extractives industries and academia both stand to benefit on account of many shared interests. This was on full display at Strathmore University just the other day when academics and Big Oil rubbed shoulders.

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Dr. Brendon J. Cannon is an Assistant Professor of International Security, Department of Humanities & Social Science at Khalifa University of Science & Technology (Abu Dhabi, UAE). His academic background includes a Ph.D. in Political Science (University of Utah, USA) with an emphasis on Comparative Politics & International Relations and an M.A. in Middle East Studies & History (University of Utah, USA). Dr. Cannon was previously a director of a university research institute in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Somalia and lectured in political science at Kisii University in Nairobi, Kenya.


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