Sub-Saharan Africa made its appearance on the oil and gas map quite recently when compared with other regions of the world and although it seems marginal on the global oil and gas markets (it represents less than 5% of global oil production, around 2% of global gas production, just above 3% of both global oil and gas reserves), it accounts for a quarter to a third of the activities of all the major international oil companies (and even half of Italian ENI’s global activities).
While Africa is key for private international oil and gas companies, the continent also remains dependent on those companies for the development of its hydrocarbon resources, as no country ever managed (or even attempted) to play a central role in the local oil and gas industry, leaving the entire sector to foreign (mostly private) companies. Therefore, the development of the oil and gas industry in sub-Saharan Africa always depended on the interests of the international oil business.
Until quite recently, international oil companies operating in sub-Saharan Africa showed no real interest in developing gas production, which explains why the gas sector stayed marginal for so long. Very little exploration specifically targeted gas, and associated gas (unavoidably extracted with crude oil) has been considered an unwanted by-product of oil. The gas was (and still is) mostly vented or flared on site (some part being re-injected into the fields to enhance their productivity), despite the serious direct and indirect impacts of flaring on human health, soil, vegetation and the atmosphere. From the companies’ point of view, the local markets were too small and the distances to major market centers (Europe, North America and Asia) too great to make gas production and its associated transportation infrastructures (pipeline and liquefaction plants) economically viable. Long restricted by the lack of infrastructure to monetize natural gas being flared, the sub-Saharan African natural gas sector eventually emerged in the late 1990s when the first LNG plant came on stream in 1999 in Nigeria, followed by Equatorial Guinea (2007), Angola (2013) and Cameroon (2018), finally connecting the region to the global gas market. In 2018, Nigeria’s production accounted for 7% of globally traded LNG and ranks the country among the world's top five LNG exporters behind Qatar, Australia, Malaysia and the US. In the other oil producer countries (Congo, Gabon, etc.), most of natural gas production is re-injected into oil fields or flared, with only a small part of it being commercially used, mostly in gas-fueled power plants.
Natural gas production and proved reserves in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2018
East Africa, the new gas frontier
For many years, East Africa has been virtually ignored by international gas players. The presence of gas has been known in Mozambique and Tanzania since the 1960s, but at the time oil companies were exclusively looking for oil and few geologists believed in the region’s potential. A new era began in the late 2000s when major oil companies were awarded exploration blocks in the offshore Rovuma Basin, straddling the maritime borders of Mozambique and Tanzania. From 2009 onwards, a series of huge natural gas discoveries, large enough to support LNG projects, were made and changed the oil and gas industry’s interest in the whole region.
Given the size of the discoveries (3000 to 5000 billion cubic meters (bcm) in Mozambique, and 1000 to 1700 bcm in Tanzania), license-holders are moving ahead on plans to build LNG trains, especially in Mozambique where initial LNG production is expected by 2022 and the commissioning of the main liquefaction plant in 2024. As oil companies tend to work by imitation, more offshore exploration has been carried out all around the continent, leading to significant discoveries made offshore of Senegal and Mauritania (500 to 1000 bcm), and in South Africa in 2019, just to name a few.
Africa has the potential to emerge as a key supplier to the global gas market in the near future. The existing LNG capacities (exclusively located in West Africa) amount to 33 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa), and the likely first phase of LNG projects in East Africa and Senegal/Mauritania will take total capacity in sub-Saharan Africa to 60 to 75 Mtpa over the next decade. Estimates vary but suggest that East Africa’s reserve base could theoretically support an output of up to 100 Mtpa (the equivalent of Qatar’s current production). Developing LNG on such a scale, however, could take 20 years or more to accomplish, and a number of issues might complicate the future, including growing competition on the global LNG market, uncertainty about the share of gas production that African governments will want to keep for local development, and security threats (including piracy, both in the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf of Guinea).
The issue of local consumption is crucial. While international investors tend to prioritize LNG, local governments in the new gas-producing countries aim to diversify the use of their gas reserves and to develop gas-fired generation capacities that could address power deficits without having to rely exclusively on hydropower. In the long term, this is certainly desirable to ensure that the people of gas-producing countries fully enjoy the benefits of gas production. For companies this could also be positive as this could help maintain a climate of political stability, as (negatively) illustrated by the case of Nigeria, a country particularly affected by the so-called “resource curse”. Despite its huge oil and gas resources, Nigeria remains one of the poorest countries in Africa (and the world), profoundly afflicted by social and political instability and plagued with deep corruption. Given the carelessness of local as well as federal authorities, the local population in the oil-producing Niger Delta region tends to turn straight to oil companies to obtain the fruits of what they consider to be “their” oil. Regularly and in a more and more violent way, they demonstrate their hostility to the oil companies through sabotage of pipelines, kidnapping of employees, occupation of installations (including shallow water platforms), etc. These actions seriously complicate and sometimes even prevent companies’ activities.
Stabilizing the political and social situation in Nigeria and avoiding repeating the same mistakes in Mozambique and Tanzania are probably the biggest challenges facing the gas industry in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the main conditions for development of the region’s full potential.
 It was only in the 1960s that oil production started, after discoveries were made in Nigeria (1956), Angola (1955) and Gabon (1956), followed by Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon (1970s). Although the Gulf of Guinea remains the central point of focus for oil and gas players in sub-Saharan Africa, exploration and production has spread out since the 1990s across the whole continent, both offshore, with discoveries made in Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, Tanzania, etc., and onshore (Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Niger, etc.).
 Source : Enerdata, year 2018.