Do we need more ‘Bookmen’ or Craftsmen for Ghana’s oil industry?

Welders  Welders busy at Fabrication yard of Seaweld Engineering in Ghana

Tue, 21 Aug 2018 Source: Moses Dotsey Aklorbortu

Ten years after commercial oil production and building reserves in Ghana, so-called “expatriate” oil workers are streaming into the country as file-openers, welder helpers, roustabouts, painters, errand managers (messengers), plumbers and scaffolding technicians.

Lessons abound the world over, of countries with a history of poorly managed and misapplied receipts from other natural resources ending up with populations that have unrealistic, often obtuse expectations from oil finds.

In the case of Ghana, the maze of negotiations that often ended up as contracts to manage our gold, bauxite, manganese, cocoa, diamond, timber and marine resources in the past, have left Ghanaians with acute expectations from the oil we have been blessed with.

And as always, we have learned no lessons from the malignant experiences of countries whose oil find turned out a ‘curse’, and appear to have chosen the slippery path when more desirable examples to better manage the oil avail us in Norway, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, among others.

The country is happily exporting its crude with the establishment of an onshore gas processing plant, coupled with integrated oil activities with ENI, however we are obviously struggling to contain the ramping volumes of gas (with a proven reserve of more than five trillion cubic standard) from the three independent oil fields – the fat layers of the golden eggs that nourish the national purse.

First Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago

In 1977, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), Dr. Eric E. Williams, observed that “blessed as we are with hydrocarbon resources, we have a choice to make. There have been attempts to persuade us that the simplest and easiest thing to do would be to sit back, export our oil, export our gas, do nothing else and just receive revenues derived from such exports and, as it were, lead a life of luxury – at least, for some limited period.”

He continued; “This the government of T&T has completely rejected, for it amounts to putting the entire nation on the dole. Instead, we have taken what may be the more difficult road and that is – accepting the challenge of entering the world of steel, aluminium, methanol, fertilizer and petrochemicals, in spite of our smallness and in spite of our existing level of technology.”

T&T today

The nation built with such a mindset, has transformed Trinidad and Tobago today into one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean, attributing its success to reserves of oil and gas, the exploitation of which dominates its economy. Ghana, however, is yet to see the wisdom in giving a clear direction.

In a recent presentation to the Ghana Oil and Gas Service Providers Forum, T&T’s Ambassador to Ghana, Dr. Wallace W. Williams freely outlined key pillars to the success of his country and urged Ghana not to try reinventing the wheel.

Ghana, like T&T is stragically located with a stable democracy to build the local industry’s legal system, develop competitive gas prices, establish a prudent oil fiscal regime, develop skilled labour for the sector and form strategic alliances to lead the sub-region.

As is captured in an African proverb, when not familiar with the destination you are headed, you enquire from people returning from the direction and not those with no knowledge of your intended destination.

In Ambassador Williams’ submissions, he said regulating local content, knowledge and technology transfer in Ghana’s oil sector should not be an option for “It doesn’t work if it’s an option.”

For him, it is about picking partners who support the national policy and strategy and will help deliver a measurable performance, report it, learn from it and build on it. That move would culminate in strategic partnerships and participation as well as investment in the value chain for the forward march of Ghana.

GNPC Foundation – What do we need?

In its quest to set a good example and support national development, the national oil company Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC) has set up a foundation, professorial chairs at the universities with $4 million for the next four-years, rented huge under-used office space, full complement of staff, when those resources could be channeled to the development of lower level manpower.

These are in addition to scholarships for local postgraduate programmes – Masters and PhDs, which usually is a good development. One would say a good move – but do we need more Masters and PhD holders at this stage of our oil industry development.

We must take critical lessons from the Trinidadian examples, where skills development in the oil sector formed the basic building blocks for its ultimate success.

Skills development

From a long list of engineers, technologists, master craftsmen technicians, multi-skilled craftsmen and craftsman helpers, Trinidad and Tobago started with the bottommost-up approach, one that enabled indigenous participation, especially of those in affected communities.

In the case of Ghana however, there have been calls for research and the setting up of professorial chairs in the universities good move to oil the research engines at higher learning institutions, but among others many completed research works gather dust on the shelves of these same universities.

The quest for indigenous skills development, knowledge and technology transfer again must be strategic. Every choice must prove a point as is the example of Prof. Sulemana Al-Hassan of the Mining Engineering Department of the University of Mines and Technology, Tarkwa, who developed a technology he called Direct Smelting Kit (DSK) or “Sika Bukyia”.

The Sika Bukiya technology is used to recover gold without the use of mercury. The technology, funded by the European Union and adjudged by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was tested in the field and scored a recovery rate of 99 per cent.

While it has proven to be one of the best technologies of its kind in the world, invented here in Ghana, it is yet to be mass-produced. It remains on the shelves due to a lack of funding to mass-produce it to stop those in mining from using mercury and other dangerous chemicals in the extraction process.

With our teeming unemployed graduates most of who lack the required technical skills while so called “expatriates” troop to Ghana to do basic jobs Ghanaians should be handling. Must we create more problems by producing more postgraduates (masters/PhDs) without the needed practical experience to compete at the global stage?

The pain of our craftsmen

When it comes to oil, the country’s modules should shift with a preference for a bottom -top approach so graduates from Kikam, Takoradi, Kpando, Accra-Technical, Cape Coast Technical and vocational institutes from Jomoro to Keta-Aflao can be absorbed into certified centres for practical skills expertise to replace the foreign hands.

The undeniable and heartbreaking fact remain that the country's industrious craftsmen and artisans are now tro-tro drivers and driver’s mates, recruited and underpaid security-men.

From industry watchers to PC

The current posture of the Petroleum Commission (the industry regulator) in carrying out physical inspection of players in the industry, to apply sanctions and create a database of skills, give a glimmer of hope.

The Commission’s quest to indigenize various roles in the upstream sector, as per an advert published in the Daily Graphic in July inviting Ghanaians to upload their profiles may be one step in the right direction.

Ghana should be setting up a fair and realistic local content policy, adapted to the existing skills base, which ought to be a necessary, even if not sufficient condition to guide and grow the industry.

Instead of companies channeling efforts to create more PhDs and Masters degree holders, the immediate focus should be to polish the skills of our craftsmen.

We should be positioning to capture more value in the near future and the approach, I am afraid, is to focus on enhancing local capability, high-level indigenous hands that allow us to meet existing and projected demands.

We should thoroughly identify current capability and gaps, create the database as the Commission has rightly started, and design appropriate working solutions. Fortunately, we are not too late to redeem the situation, but now is the time for action.

Columnist: Moses Dotsey Aklorbortu
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