Oil and Gas Exploration in East Africa: A Brief History

East Africa is the emerging hydrocarbon province of the 21st Century - but it is worth remembering that this success comes after six decades of unsuccessful exploration.
This article appeared in September, 2014


Ethiopian Airforce and Elwerath staff rest in the shade of their aircraft in the Ogaden, circa 1962. (Source: E. Blissenbach)

We are pleased to present this fascinating and enlightening review on the history of oil and gas exploration in East Africa as a web exclusive for GeoExPro.


The exploration success in East Africa in recent years has been an exciting development and the resources discovered have the potential for great benefit to the countries involved. So far three, maybe four billion barrels of oil have been discovered onshore in Uganda and Kenya and 200 (or more) Tcfg offshore Tanzania and Mozambique. Suddenly East Africa is on everyone’s radar. Let’s take a look at the history behind this apparently sudden success.

East Africa Exploration Time Line

A Map Guide to Exploration History in East Africa

Exploration in East Africa actually started early last century, beginning with Anglo-American’s Dudley Expedition to Abyssinia in 1920. The biggest effort was in Uganda and the Eritrean Red Sea where there was extensive shallow drilling around oil seeps. Systematic exploration did not commence until the 1950s, however, and it is there we’ll begin this review of the exploration activity in the region, decade by decade, looking at the pattern of exploration in the different countries, the companies involved, the objectives they pursued and what drove the fluctuating interest

Permits in East Africa 1950 – 2010

Showing wells drilled during each decade.

  • 1950s: During the worldwide surge in exploration after WW2 the Horn of Africa was seen as a potential extension of the Arabian oil province. When Sinclair Oil commenced field work in Somalia and Ethiopia, their first activity, they reported, was to scan the region for other structures similar to Saudi Arabia’s legendary Ghawar. BP/Shell were prominent in the then British colonies of Kenya and Somaliland but large American companies such as Mobil and Sinclair were conspicuous too, as was the Italian AGIP. 36 wells were drilled in the ‘50s, with many being stratigraphic rather than structural tests, including wells on the seeps along the shore of Uganda’s Lake Albert. There were encouraging oil shows in Sinclair’s Galadi well in Ethiopia and Stanvac’s wells on the Daga Shebel seep in what was then British Somaliland.

  • 1960s: Exploration activity increased slightly in the 1960s but permit areas decreased in Ethiopia and northern Somalia. The number of large and small companies was about in balance, though the large companies were still the dominant players. 40 wells were drilled but, while reflection seismic surveys offered improved prospect selection, few wells had significant shows. The gas flow at Sinclair’s Agfoi-1 in Somalia was probably the high point of the decade onshore. In the Red Sea, Mobil’s C-1 gas blow-out pointed to gas potential.

  • The 70s brought an influx of major companies, primarily into Kenya and Ethiopia, with Chevron, Elf, Total, Burmah, Tenneco and Exxon all making their entry to the region. Conoco took the industry’s initial look at the Lake Albert Basin. The list of permitees in the 1970s has only a few small companies on it. I worked for one of them - Whitestone, a Dallas-based independent - in Ethiopia and Kenya. Over the decade, 27 wells were drilled. Tanzania enjoyed the Songo Songo gas discovery, while Tenneco’s Calub and Hilala gas discoveries and oil shows established Ethiopia’s western Ogaden as a potential new hydrocarbon province. Unfortunately the military coup and war with Somalia brought exploration there to an end. Kenya and Somalia yielded only minor gas flows.

  • Despite these disappointing results, the enthusiasm of the large companies for East Africa saw activity rise to a new peak in the 1980s, driven by the soaring oil price and encouraged by big discoveries nearby in Sudan and Yemen. This increase was largely in Somalia and in Kenya, where exploration moved into the Anza Graben. In Ethiopia the main activity was a Russian co-operative project in the Ogaden. Exploration commenced in the interior Karoo basins in Tanzania, and along the lake basins there and in Burundi. 58 wells were drilled, 42 wildcats and 16 appraisals. 8 of these were following up Tenneco’s Ethiopian Ogaden discoveries; 2 trying unsuccessfully to prove commerciality at the Agfoi gasfield in Somalia, and 5 confirming the Songo Songo gasfield in Tanzania, where a second gas discovery was made at Mnazi Bay.

  • The 90s were a different story. The oil price had collapsed in the late 80s and got worse through the 90s. Local problems exacerbated the situation. Promising exploration efforts in Somalia were aborted after the 1991 Somalia coup and the anarchy that followed, but not before Conoco’s Nogal well encountered oil shows in the Upper Cretaceous/Tertiary Nogal Rift. In Ethiopia, the civil war ended and Eritrea seceded. Only 4 wildcat wells were drilled, 3 in red Sea. The 5 wells in Tanzania yielded no significant shows. In Kenya, Shell’s Loperot well discovered an uncommercial oil accumulation in the Lokichar Basin near Lake Turkana, but a perceived lack of structure discouraged further activity.

  • In the 2000s the oil price hike saw a swarm of exploration companies across East Africa, but, for the first time, the larger oil companies were not part of the onshore scene. The main players were NOCs such as Petronas, proven explorers such as Lundin, and a plethora of small independents. This permitting frenzy did not lead everywhere to a boom in activity. Across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia only 5 wells were drilled – all disappointingly dry. It was a different story in Uganda’s Lake Albert basin, however: the Turacao wells discovered gas and Hardman’s Mputa-1 oil discovery in 2006 changed the game. 25 of the next 28 wells drilled in the region were oil discoveries and Lake Albert was suddenly a giant oil province. In Tanzania’s coastal basin, a string of modest gas discoveries - Mnazi Bay re-visited, Kiliwani, others - were an omen of what was to come offshore.

  • There has been a massive surge in permitting since 2010 in response to the discoveries and almost all basin areas are under permit, save for most of Somalia where security remains a major problem - 95 wells were drilled to end 2013. In 2010, Pweza-1 discovered gas in deep-water Tanzania and numerous other major discoveries followed. In Kenya, Tullow discovered oil in Ngamia-1 in the Lokichar Basin, and have since made several more discoveries. In Uganda, there have been numerous new discoveries and successful appraisal on the Albertine oilfields. Conversely, much anticipated drilling in Ethiopia’s Omo Basin, on trend from Kenya’s Lokichar, was unsuccessful, as was drilling in northern Somalia.

Drilling Over the Decades

Explorers new to the region are often surprised to see that the main players historically in East Africa have been the large international companies; companies like Shell, AGIP, Conoco, Elf, Texaco, Amoco, Mobil, Exxon and Chevron. This is an impressive group, to say the least, and they have held East Africa in high regard for a long time. They lost interest in the 90s but many have been lured back by the scale of the recent discoveries.

Wells drilled in each country by decade showing discoveries. (Source: Peter Purcell) The chart of wells drilled in each country per decade shows how discoveries – and oil companies - have moved around the region. Somalia dominated the early decades leading to the Agfoi discovery, but otherwise has had only modest results, while Ethiopia had the Tenneco Calub and Hilala gas discoveries, but size and security problems have weighed against development. The Ogaden has an impressive pattern of good oil shows but no significant flow. Kenya had oil and gas shows in early drilling but the omen of good things to come was Shell’s small Loperot oil discovery in the 90s. Tanzania has the early onshore gas discoveries at Songo Songo and Mnazi Bay and then spectacular multi-Tcf gas discoveries as deep water drilling commenced in the 2000s. Uganda had early shows in stratigraphic wells in the 30s and 50s, and then nothing until the boom of the 2000s.

The trend has changed. From Kenya through Tanzania to Uganda, the chart is soaring. The potential for further discoveries is high. The potential economic benefits to these countries are many. So too are the challenges, both technical and social.

Lessons from History

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this history. For explorers, there is the always useful reminder that early results must be carefully considered, especially where there are seeps and shows involved. There is the encouragement, already taken up by many companies, that the other Tertiary rift basins of East Africa might also host large oilfields, perhaps especially the Western branch which is almost undrilled beyond Lake Albert. There is encouragement from the Lokichar discoveries that portions of the more volcanic Eastern Branch can also be petroliferous. There is also encouragement regarding the potential of offshore Somalia, along trend with the giant gas province to the south. However, we must also remember that the recent discoveries do not upgrade all the basins of East Africa, only those which are geologically analogous.

The history also offers some insights into the complex social and political situation now challenging our industry in these countries. Those decades of unsuccessful exploration bred intense economic frustration but that has been over-printed by the recent successes. Expectations are now very high, unrealistically high, both in terms of economic benefit and further discoveries. East Africa is seen by many as a vast oil province and huge discoveries are expected across the region. These views prevail at all levels of society, right up to the Ministerial offices.

This expectation is adding to social and political conflicts in the region, as groups - local, tribal, national - vie for control of land where they expect oil or gas will be found. Many of the issues are old, but the proximity or promise of oil or gas wealth is an added and complicating factor.

A summary of East African conflict zones. (Source: Peter Purcell)

There are several international border disputes near the discoveries or areas of potential, real or imaginary. The Sudan/Kenya dispute over the Ilemi Triangle area, for example, is adjacent to the Lokichar discoveries. Uganda and Congo disagree over Lake Albert borders. Tanzania has disputes with both Malawi and Congo over lake-basin boundaries. Armed conflict in the Ethiopian Ogaden and between Somaliland and Puntland are both invigorated by the perceived promise of oil riches. Offshore, oil and gas potential is a factor in the Kenya/Somalia dispute over the maritime boundary and a contributor to increased tension between Tanzania and Zanzibar.

Where discoveries have been made in Uganda and Kenya, conflicts over entitlements and revenue sharing between local and national communities are already challenging the governments and companies involved. Similar challenges can be expected wherever new discoveries are made. Knowledge of the history of exploration in a region, and the role it has played in shaping community beliefs and expectations, may help companies to understand and manage the complex social and political demands that now confront them in this region.

Tullow’s Ngassa 2 exploration well in Lake Albert, Uganda in 2009 (Source: Tullow Oil)


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