Shell Gabon is celebrating its 50th anniversary of operations in the West African country of Gabon. Roger Ratanga and Eric Soselisa explain more about the company’s approach towards sustainability and its vision for the years to come.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth largest oil producer, Gabon also holds the third largest oil reserves in the region. With this resource accounting for around 80 per cent of the country’s export revenues and over 40 per cent of its GDP, it is unsurprising that oil majors including Total, Perenco, Addax and Sinopec, to name a few, have long since set up camp in the area.
Royal Dutch Shell is also flexing its operational muscle in Gabon, and has been doing so for the past 50 years. It was Shell who discovered the Gamba oil field in 1967, breathing life into a remote corner of the country and creating what is now a major and strategic oil hub, also the location of Shell Gabon’s headquarters.
For Shell Gabon, exploration in the country has not only yielded Gamba; further successes have included the discovery of Rabi, which is not only the biggest oil field in Gabon but in the whole of West Africa. The Toucan field was brought on-stream in 2002 and Awoun, which was discovered in 2005, is due to come on-stream later this year.
As well as these onshore operations, which are mainly clustered around Gamba, Shell Gabon also operates two offshore blocks. Exploration, both on dry land and out to sea, is ongoing.
But Gabon plays host to another major natural resource—its eco-system. Gamba is surrounded by a rich environment of grasslands, lagoons, rivers, wetlands, mountains and jungle called the Gamba Complex. Home to a wide variety of birds and mammals, eco-tourism is growing increasingly important to the country’s economy.
For Shell Gabon, operating in such a sensitive environment has posed particular challenges. “Over the past 50 years, but particularly over the past 10 years, we have been focusing on sustainable care for the environment in which we operate—i.e. the wildlife reserve area of Gabon; and we have done that in partnership with the Smithsonian,” explains operations manager Eric Soselisa. The Gamba Project was developed in 1999 by the Smithsonian Institute Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program, with funding from the Shell Foundation’s Sustainable Energy Programme and Shell Gabon, to assess and monitor the biodiversity in the Gamba Complex.
“The main oil line that connects the Rabi field to the Gamba terminal goes through a wildlife reserve area,” explains Soselisa. “The pipe itself is maintained and monitored continuously to prevent any damage; and in the years that we have been operating, there have been no major incidents with the pipeline.”
This is just one crucial facet of a much wider health and safety ethos which Shell implements company-wide. Between 400 and 500 staff work for Shell Gabon, and a further raft of contractors and suppliers can take total staff numbers up to 2,000 people, so health and safety is undoubtedly the company’s number one priority, says Soselisa. “Safety comes first,” he states. “We will not do anything if the safety of our staff, our facility and the environment is not guaranteed. We will stop our operations if the safety aspect of any particular activity requires us to do so.”
Shell is of course well accustomed to operating in remote locations; and its methods and systems for doing so are well researched and very effective. Still, there is always a case for continuous improvement. “The primary challenge is to do no harm to any of our staff, stakeholders or the environment—we are aiming for Goal Zero—and in a jungle area, that is of course very important,” says Soselisa. Goal Zero is Shell’s company-wide programme that aims to facilitate operation without the occurrence of fatalities or significant incidents, despite the often harsh working environments.
To make this happen, Shell Gabon has recognised that staff need to be on board and fully engaged with the company’s agenda. So in addition to the mandatory health, safety, security and environmental training which every employee must undertake, there is a comprehensive programme in place that aims to further develop skills. “We have the training to develop staff not only on the technical side but also on their leadership and managerial skills. We also give staff specific training applicable to a particular department or area they are concerned with. And that development can be done locally in Gabon but if it is not available, or cannot be arranged in Gabon, then we will ensure that the individual is sent to wherever the training can be obtained. In addition to that, to maintain a competent task force, we also send certain number of Gabonese staff on overseas assignments to further address their development needs.”
Hiring from the local community has always been high on the list of Shell Gabon’s priorities—of the Shell Gabon workforce, around 75 to 80 per cent is Gabonese, says Soselisa, but there are additional operations units which are manpower-intensive and within these, the majority of the staff—around 97 per cent—is Gabonese.
The company’s relations with the local community may start with employment; but over the years, they have extended well beyond it, as communications director Roger Ratanga explains. “Shell Gabon developed and established some social structure in order to look after its employees. We opened a clinic; we also built a secondary school; and we built roads. We realised that we had to have a sustainable approach in supporting the community, by providing them with the means to provide for their own future, themselves. So one thing we have done is to provide scholarships to some young Gabonese for tertiary education in Europe. That process started in the early 1990s and up until now, 50 young Gabonese have benefited from those Shell scholarships.”
Shell Gabon is also dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship in the local economy. In partnership with the state and with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as the University of Gabon, Shell has established what it calls its Gamba Sustainable Livelihood Project. “This aims to providing the community with some support such as micro-credit loans provided through government subsidies or government organisations, to promote the entrepreneurship locally,” Ratanga explains. “Aside from financial loans or micro-credit, we also provide them with training in managing small businesses.”
With such major presence and influence in the local area, Shell Gabon has always been mindful of the importance of sustainability going forward. “We realised that providing a medical service to the community could not be sustainable in the long term—after all, we are an oil-producing company and this oil may one day disappear,” says Ratanga. “So alongside the Government, we have been working on a process whereby instead of being supported by the Shell clinic, the community has moved into the regional medical centre, to make them really independent from Shell. That process took three years to be established and has become very effective.” In the year 2000 to 2001, 71 per cent of people attending the Shell clinic were not Shell employees; now, the local medical service is run solely from the Gamba Regional Medical Centre. “So that dependency on Shell has been severed,” says Ratanga.
Going forward, Shell Gabon’s main operational investment is likely to be in exploration activities, with the emphasis on offshore resources. If its success of the past 50 years is anything to go by, there will undoubtedly be more discoveries, with further employment opportunities and local investment bound to follow suit.