History of the Africa Conference

Written by Caroline Wachtman, with contributions from Kevin Dale, Al Danforth, Brian Horn, Duncan MacGregor, Gavin Elliott and Ray Bate

It Started in a Pub in 2001

Like many great ideas, the idea for the collaboration on the Africa Conference started with a small group of colleagues chatting after work in a pub.  That initial pub conversation was held in 2001, and it sparked a partnership extending more than 22 years between the Houston Geological Society (HGS) and the Geoscience Energy Society of Great Britain (GESGP; formerly the Petroleum Society of Great Britain, PESGB).  During that time, the Africa Conference has hosted hundreds of presentations from majors, independents, consultants, academics and government ministries.  The format and content of the Africa Conference have evolved, but the Conference has continued to mirror the interest and enthusiasm of geologists exploring and developing energy resources in Africa.

The Early Days

During the 1990s, the PESGB Special Interest Group on Africa periodically held symposiums organized by Nick Cameron, Val Clure and Ray Bate.  In 1998, the PESGB held a conference on West Africa that was followed by a conference on Southern Africa and the Falkland Islands in 1999.  In late 2001, Al Danforth from the HGS, and Ray Bate from the PESGB discussed the challenges encountered by small professional societies when organizing conferences.  They conceived the idea of jointly organizing and marketing a conference on Africa.  The PESGB and HGS planned to alternate as hosts, and each society would assume the risk and keep the financial benefit of being the host.  Although there was not a formal agreement, the partnership has proven to be successful for more than 22 years.

The inaugural 2002 conference was hosted by PESGB in London and chaired by Ray Bate with support from Duncan MacGregor.  Over 250 delegates attended and presented talks on the theme “Africa: The Success will Continue.”  HGS hosted the 2nd Africa conference in Houston in 2003 with the theme of “Africa: New Plays – New Perspectives.”  The HGS introduced posters and vendor booths to the conference that year.  PESGB hosted the 2004 conference, “The Continent of Challenge and Opportunity,” followed by “Africa: Path to Discovery” hosted by HGS in 2005.  Over 150 papers had been presented by the time of the 2006 conference, themed “The Elephants of the Future.”  In these years, most of the papers focused on exploration in West and North Africa, although East Africa was a key focus in 2003.

Conference Evolution

Attracting African contributors has historically been a challenge, and the HGS and PESGB tried to attract more local contributions by moving the 2007 conference to Cape Town.  Attendance was overall low, and the conference was returned to Houston in 2008.  In 2019, PESGB worked closely with seismic vendors to increase the number of African delegates and to support local content development.  The model was successful in increasing African participation, but it was not sustainable with the shift to virtual format in 2020.  Approximately 10% of the delegates to the the 2022 virtual conference were located in Africa; whereas nearly 70% of delegates attended from either Houston or London.

The role of seismic data in exploration has historically been a theme of the conference.  A seismic workshop was added to the program for the 12th conference held in 2013 in London.  This was further expanded in 2015 and 2016 to include seismic vendors showcasing the latest products and services.  In 2018, attendees discussed and interpreted seismic lines that extended the length of a hotel.  Seismic vendors composed a smaller number of delegates to the 2022 conference, but remained integral to the conference’s success, with Shearwater as the headline sponsor that year.

Although the Africa Conference is focused on hydrocarbon exploration, development and production, the Conference has continued to evolve along with the energy industry.  In 2021, the first Energy Transition session was included.  It featured talks on the CO2 storage potential and geothermal exploration potential of Africa.  This theme was continued and expanded in 2022, with talks on hydrogen and helium exploration, machine learning workflows applied to CO2 storage, and net-zero goals.

Photo 1: The highest attendance of any of the Africa conferences was at London, Wembley in 2013 with some 650 attendees and onsite registration having to be closed.

Going Virtual…and Back

The Africa conference went virtual in 2020, when the COVID-19 global pandemic resulted in travel restrictions and reduced corporate budgets.  In 2020, the HGS held the 19th Conference as an online series featuring different areas in Africa each Thursday over the course of a month.  Both the 20th and 21st annual conferences were held as two half-day virtual technical sessions, as the global pandemic continued to limit travel and cause logistical uncertainties.  In addition to the virtual components, an in-person dinner and social hour were held in Houston in 2022.

The Africa Conference participants realized key benefits of virtual conferences, for example, the ability to engage a worldwide and diverse audience, allow attendees flexibility to manage their schedules, and to reduce costs.  However, participants also missed face-to-face networking opportunities.  Participant feedback on virtual v. in-person format following the 2022 conference was evenly split, with half of the participants strongly in favor of continuing virtually and an equal number preferring a return to an in-person format.  The 22nd annual Conference will be held in London and will be a welcome return to in-person presentations, posters and exhibitors. The 2023 event aims to showcase how the subsurface of Africa has the potential to power the future of the world along with driving its own energy development.

21st Conference

The 2022 Conference had three goals: to be inclusive, be accretive to the discussion on African geology, and foster engagement among the community of scientists and business-people working Africa.  To achieve these goals, the Conference included 28 virtual presentations, a pre-conference in-person dinner and a post-conference in-person social in Houston.  Nearly 200 people participate in one or more of the events and many attendees were located outside of Houston.  Approximately one-third of participants worked for Exploration & Production companies, one-third worked as consultants, and the remaining third was composed of vendors or those in academia.

Photo 2: The international pavilion gives an opportunity for African countries to promote their opportunities and will be expanded on in 2019.

Highlights by the Numbers

  • 650 delegates attended the 2013 Conference, the largest number of attendees to date
  • 80 presentations at the 2017 Conference, the largest number of oral presentations to date
  • 21 annual conferences held since 2002
  • 3 years that the conference was held virtually
  • 2019, the year that TV documentary geologist, Professor Iain Stewart, handed out the awards for best papers
Date Location Title Chair *
2023 London Unlocking African Energy to Power the Future Gavin Elliott
2022 Houston The Future of G&G in Africa: Skills, Transition and Resources Caroline Wachtman
2021 London Africa Conference on E&P Kevin Dale
2020 Houston Africa and its Conjugate Margins – New Ideas, Play and Innovation Brian Horn
2019 London Africa is Back: Smarter, Stronger, Better Kevin Dale
2018 Houston Big Continent, Big Ideas, Big Opportunity, Strategies for Success Brian Horn
2017 London New Thinking, New Technology, New Hydrocarbons Kevin Dale
2016 Houston Africa: What’s Next? John Jordan
2015 London Always Something New Coming Out of Africa Ray Bate
2014 Houston Africa: A World of Opportunities Martin Cassidy
2013 London Africa: Success in Rift, Sag and Passive Margin Settings Ray Bate
2012 Houston Africa: Continent of Discoveries Al Danforth
2011 London Africa: A Legacy of Exploration and Discovery Ray Bate
2010 Houston Africa: A Multi-faceted Promise Al Danforth
2009 London Africa: New Concepts for the Oldest Continent Ray Bate
2008 Houston Africa – Opportunity from Coast to Coast Al Danforth
2007 Cape Town Africa’s Petroleum Systems: From Outcrop to Deepwater Ray Bate
2006 London Africa: The Elephants of the Future Ray Bate
2005 Houston Africa: Path to Discovery Al Danforth
2004 London Africa: The Continent of Challenge and Opportunity Ray Bate
2003 Houston Africa: New Plays – New Perspectives Al Danforth
2002 London Africa: The Success Will Continue Ray Bate


* Although only the Chair is listed here, the Africa Conference would not be possible without the dedicated support of dozens of volunteers and staff from HGS and GESGB.