Lessons from Kenya’s oil

Two weeks ago, Kenya dispatched a maiden shipment of Kenyan crude oil to China. Commercial shipments will not occur until about 2024, at which time it is estimated that Kenya will be producing at least 100 000 barrels per day. Exploration of oil in Kenya started in the 1950s, but it was not until 2012 when the first commercially viable oil reserves were discovered in the tertiary rift valley of the East African country.

All well-meaning citizens of the world should wish Kenyans well as they become the first East African nation to join the ranks of oil exporting countries. This is not to say Kenya’s newly found oil trade is without challenges and threats.

Already there are signs of disagreement as to how the oil revenue should be shared. The people of Turkana appear not to like the provision in the recently introduced law, which states that only 5 percent of the government earning on the oil is to be channelled to the people.

One glaring threat to oil exports is the very real possibility of the world weaning itself from petrol or diesel-propelled vehicles. Britain is planning to outlaw such cars by 2040 in favour of the more environmentally-friendly electric cars. The whole world is moving towards getting away from the environmentally-unfriendly fossil fuels.

When fossil fuels are burnt they produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas and; therefore, contributes to global warming. They also produce sulphur dioxide, which leads to acid rain.

As a result, alternative sources of energy are enthusiastically being investigated. One of the most promising ones is electric energy.

A South Africa-born American, Elon Musk, is among the champions of the electric car technology. His company, Tesla, is already producing many such cars. He has set up many charging stations (not filling stations) across America. Not too far away from now the filling stations of the world will be turned into charging stations.

The only use we shall have of fossil fuel is possibly as lubricants. Because lubricants do not get burnt, they do not pose the same environmental danger as the fuels. But lubricants are only a small fraction of the use of petroleum. This means that earnings from petroleum will plummet because of changing preferences.

Therefore, while the discovery of oil in Africa or any other country is a blessing, such a blessing will turn out to be a short lived one in view of the foregoing narrative.

There is no denying that natural resources such as oil or gold, copper, coal, diamonds, bauxite, uranium and others are a great source of national income. Countries have achieved high levels of development owing to these natural resources.

South Africa is one of the largest economies on this continent. Until recently, it was by far relatively the largest and most developed economy. South Africa owes its development to gold. The name the locals use for South Africa’s premier city, Johannesburg, is Egoli, which simply means ‘City of Gold’. I have seen large dunes of gold dust in Johannesburg, a reminder about the intense gold mining activity of the past.

There is not a district in Malawi which has not sent able-bodied young men to South Africa to work in the gold mines. They used to be recruited by an agency called the Witwatersand Native Labour Association (WNLA), but popularly known as Wenela.

Wenela has its relics in Malawi. In Dowa, a whole neighbourhood was devoted to Wenela. It used to be burstling with activity when I attended Robert Blake Secondary School close to Dowa Boma in the 1970s. It is a ghost town now, Wenela having ceased operations in the 1980s. In Blantyre, Wenela used to operate from where the main bus depot stands. The name has not faded although the younger generations do not know its origin.

Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had respectable deposits of some minerals—gold, nickel, coal in the case of Southern Rhodesia; copper in the case of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)—at the time of the British colonisation. Therefore, these territories turned out to be a lot more developed than the third territory in the British Central African Federation, Nyasaland.

The importance of these natural resources cannot be over-emphasised. However, the threats associated with them must be recognised and efforts to achieve development by other routes should relentlessly be pursued. Counties such as Japan, Malaysia and Singapore have little by way of minerals, but have achieved high levels of development because they have invested in brain power.

As we search within, Kenya and other African countries should not just rely on oil or other minerals, but should also encourage their young citizens to take innovation seriously.

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