Leveraging oil and gas in Africa’s energy transition

An attendant at a Nyeri petrol station prepares to fill up a car

An attendant at a Nyeri petrol station prepares to fill up a car in August 2020. Oil and gas is the most lucrative natural resource in Africa.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

I have been keenly following the global debate on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables because it has grave implications not only for the oil and gas sector but also for the people of Kenya generally.

Nobody has an issue with the science and logic of the need for green energy to meet the imperatives of climate change. The problem is the pace and socioeconomic consequences of the transition for our people. Is the transition fair? Realistic? Practical?

The transition is not taking place in a historical, economic or social vacuum but in a sad context of widespread poverty, massive youth unemployment, crippling external debts and social discontent fuelled by very high food, fuel and electricity prices. 

For a person who has slept hungry, cannot afford to take children to school or medicine for loved ones and must rely on expensive kerosene, charcoal and firewood for their cooking needs, the dream of a carbon-free world is too remote and idealistic.

Oil and gas is the most lucrative natural resource in Africa. We rely on them to solve our basic developmental needs. Kenya completed the initial exploration phase of its oil reserves in Lokichar basin, Turkana County, commerciality has been proven and the production system is being put in place.

Would it be fair to be told that, because of the energy transition we should not extract our oil, to pay our external debts, buy food and medicine and take our children to school? Shall we pay our external debts with solar and wind power? It is our fundamental duty as policymakers to act in the best interests of the people. We cannot abdicate or transfer this responsibility to outsiders, however well-meaning.


Hydrocarbons are necessary for our socioeconomic transformation beyond the narrow confines of green energy. It is the duty of African policymakers to redesign the pace and shape of the transition to ensure that it does not condemn our people to perpetual poverty and social backwardness.

There has been massive investment in fossil fuel infrastructure in the form of production wells, pipelines, refineries, downstream stations and even motor vehicles. They cannot be abandoned overnight.

Massive investments will be required for renewable energy infrastructure in the form of wind turbines, solar panels, storage batteries and transmission lines. Besides, climate funding is too slow and elusive. Private capital can lead to high renewable energy costs and make them widely unaffordable. That can force the people back to charcoal and firewood, leading to further climate change complications.

The transition will take several decades. Fossil fuels account for 77 per cent of the global energy mix. In the short- and medium-term, fossil fuels can be strategically exploited to generate funds for investment in expanding infrastructure for renewables.

Oil and gas is a dynamic industry with enormous financial, scientific and technical resources which should be directed towards a zero-carbon fuels future.

Africa has huge under-explored and unexploited natural gas potential. We should encourage massive exploration, production and distribution of more climate-friendly natural gas. Oil firms should lead the way in opening frontiers for renewable energy by investing in scientific innovations.

One of the most attractive unexploited renewable sources of power is green hydrogen. Kenya has a huge potential for the production of green hydrogen given its vast geothermal, wind and solar resources, but, for now, we need to bring our oil out of the bowels of the earth to help us improve our livelihoods.

Mr Murungi, a former Energy minister, is the National Oil Corporation of Kenya (Nock) chairman. This is an excerpt of a presentation he made at the Africa Energy Forum which ended yesterday in Nairobi. [email protected].