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How can technology positively impact the oil and gas industries in Africa?

Robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced analytics are opening up new opportunities for growth and improvement of Africa's energy sector.

The petroleum industry is one of the foundations of Africa’s growth and I believe it’s a force for positive change. But for all the revenues and jobs that the industry brings to African nations, when it comes to technology, oil and gas seemingly takes a back seat to much higher profile innovations in telecoms, health, entertainment and retail.

In reality, although the natural resources sector can be slow to embrace change, the last two years have seen new technologies make a huge impact on the way we extract and use oil and gas.

The catalyst for the energy sector’s uptake of new technologies is the persistent low oil price from 2015. Once companies understood that lower prices were here for longer, they were forced to innovate and become more efficient. The first explorers and producers to venture onto the ‘digital oilfield’ realized billions of dollars of savings. Robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced analytics are all opening up new opportunities for operators.

According to McKinsey & Company, predictive maintenance using advanced analytics can decrease maintenance costs by up to 13 percent and reduce the cost of new equipment. Using 4D seismic imaging on top of 3D seismic can increase the recovery rate from reservoirs by up to 40 percent. Supply networks can be improved using geospatial analytics, with savings of up to 10 percent there for the taking. These benefits can all be applied to African petroleum operations, and may perhaps yield even greater savings, due to a deficit in previous technology investment in some places.

Africa will not be left behind. The major oil companies will routinely implement digital solutions at oilfields globally. At their African operations, AI and advanced analytics – such as Nvidia and Baker Hughes’ new deep learning AI solution for offshore platforms – can be used to get more from mature reservoirs, reduce drilling risk and deliver materials to remote sites. The major challenges on this continent will be the preparation of the workforce and the indigenization of technology.

Much as Kenyan and Nigerian entrepreneurs have developed their own mobile money, e-commerce and location-based healthcare solutions, so can African companies lend their dynamism to the energy industry, from oil and gas exploration to gas-fired power stations. The supply chain and the interface between hydrocarbons and power are areas where local entrepreneurs could make particularly valuable progress.

Local oil and gas and engineering companies, especially those operating in Nigeria, are great candidates for new tech uptake. Their ability to make decisions and implement technology fast can help them better compete with the internationals. And their national content priorities will ensure that the workers they train will be fully equipped for the African digital oilfield and able to create new solutions for the local industry.

There is still huge room for growth in African oil and gas tech. Change is here, but it is still moving slow. There are huge amounts of additional value to be released from mature fields and offshore operations, as well as from African entrepreneurs yet to venture into the energy space. New technologies can make Africa’s oil and gas business more competitive, and therefore able to make better use of our valuable resources.