New producing countries are set to redraw sub-Saharan Africa's oil and gas map over the next five years, contributing to a significant net increase in output and attracting the top global companies.
Today, the region's heavyweight producer nations, Nigeria and Angola, together pump around four million barrels per day [bpd] of crude oil, and they also dominate natural gas output. Only a handful of other countries in the region produce more than a couple of hundred thousand barrels of oil and gas equivalent.
A few years from now, the balance could be very different. A decade of high prices, good terms for exploration drillers from governments increasingly open to business, and better seismic techniques for finding deposits have lengthened the list of African nations that are on the brink of production.
Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Niger are among those that could see new fields producing more than 100,000 bpd of oil by the end of the decade. Mozambique and Tanzania are looking for gas and planning compression plants to liquify it for shipping to Asia.
By 2018, sub-Saharan Africa could be producing an extra 400,000 bpd of oil, according to consultants Wood Mackenzie. That would, for example, almost meet the demand of wealthy Sweden and Denmark together - 15 million people - and would increase the sub-Saharan region's total crude output to 6.6 million bpd.
Natural gas output this year is about 6.8 billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d), or 70 billion cubic meters annually, enough to supply the gas needs of Italy or Germany. Production should top nine bcf/d by 2018 and reach 12.7 bcf/d by 2023, Wood Mackenzie estimates.
At present, some two thirds of sub-Saharan Africa's gas is exported as liquefied natural gas [LNG] from Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea.
Until recently, the largest companies in such states seen as being on the "frontier" of the industry included the likes of African exploration specialist Tullow Oil, mid-ranked international groups such as Anadarko and ENI, and smaller exploration players such as Ophir Energy, Kosmos, Africa Oil and a host of others.
Lately though, global heavyweights like Chevron and Total have become involved.
"The supermajors are looking at the success that some of these companies have had, and they're trying to get in on the ground floor, picking up the exploration acreage at an early stage and working with that all the way up to drilling the prospects," said Martin Kelly, Wood Mackenzie's lead analyst on sub-Saharan Africa.
In the past couple of years, Chevron has taken up exploration blocks in Liberia and Sierra Leone, while Total has new acreage in deep water off Kenya and deepwater blocks in Mozambique. Royal Dutch/Shell is prospecting deepwater acreage off Tanzania with Petrobras. Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Total all are exploring in the waters off of South Africa.
"There's a bit of a land-grab ongoing by the supermajors," said Kelly.
Political risks from unforeseen government action remain, as Heritage Oil discovered when Uganda presented it with a heavy tax bill when it sold up in the country. Research this week from Credit Suisse re-assesses recent deals in the light of possible tax demands, though, and says valuations still look strong.
And broker, RFC Ambrian, lists association with industry heavyweights as a bonus for small explorers in the region: "The potential for new petroleum discoveries in sub-Sahara Africa is being underestimated by equity markets," it said.
One of the big recent finds, the offshore Jubilee field, already is producing 110,000 bpd for Ghana and Tullow, a company which has become Europe's number one oil and gas independent thanks to developments in 16 sub-Saharan countries.
Also in Ghana, Ghana and Tullow said the Tweneboa, Enyenra, Ntomme [TEN] cluster of fields could be processing some 80,000 barrels a day initially once it gets Ghanaian government approval.
In Congo Republic, a modest producer already, Chevron made its final investment decision last month on the $10 billion deepwater Moho Bilondo and Moho Nord projects. These are set to deliver their first oil in 2015, and to peak at 170,000 barrels a day in 2017.
In Uganda, Tullow has recruited France's Total and CNOOC of China to develop oil. Discussions with the government over the size of an associated refinery have caused delay but plans for a 200,000 bpd pipeline that could link up with more potentially productive wells in Kenya show its potential.
Niger, whose main international partner is China's CNPC, hopes to be producing from its Agadem block early next year, with output ramping up to 80,000 bpd.
As for today's big two producing states, Nigerian output has fallen from 2.5 million bpd in 2011 to slightly more than two million today, as theft and technical troubles plague producers. Off Angola's coast, however, Chevron last year sanctioned the $5.6 billion Mafumeira Sul field, which plans to be pumping by 2015, with maximum output estimated at 110,000 bpd.
Wood Mackenzie's oil output projections have the region's overall production in decline once more after 2018, but Kelly said this could be a function of conservative modeling.
Certainly there is no shortage of ambition, as demonstrated by Tewodros Ashenafi, an Ethiopian driller who was in London this week looking for $100 million of financing.
He sees his country as a potential 400,000-bpd producer based on geology that crosses the Red Sea from the oil-rich Middle East, and he believes the rise of indigenous companies like his privately held SouthWest Energy could be the next corporate wave for the region.
"That trend is something that's on the uptick," said Ashenafi. "We've been approached by a number of African governments to come and explore."