How Come Graduates of Russian Universities Manage to Earn Top Positions in the Congo Republic?
The sun-baked land of Africa is painted bright red. It owes this colour to the high content of iron oxide in the soil. In this story, a graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University from the Congo (pictured to the right) provides an insight into the way mining industry works in his homeland. He also explains in what fundamental way he differs from local specialists.
Just Otakana drives about 100 km a day from home to the Mayoko District, wherein he is leading geological exploration works held inside impenetrable rain forests of the region. Yet, despite all the difficult conditions – frequent showers, limited mobile connection, wild animals in the area, and other challenges of working in the tropics – Just considers himself being a lucky guy. First, he is doing what he really likes, and second, by the country's standards, he is making a nice profit. Having either is a rare achievement for Congolese people and having both is something beyond the imaginable.
Talking about his work, the Mining University's graduate says, "I am working for Sapro Mayoko Iron Ore. It is a Congolese company headed by Paul Obambi, one of the country's richest men. Sapro Group is present across a variety of business sectors, including among others industry, construction, services, and others. The company has subsidiaries in several countries - Congo, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, and, starting from 2019, in China too. For our country, which is heavily dependent on revenues from mineral extraction and processing, the energy sector is, of course, of top priority ones. As such, Sapro Oil produces a wide range of fuels - gasoline, gas-oil, petroleum oil - to be used by factories, aircraft, and in different kinds of vehicles. Mining is another important sector - the subsidiary company I work for is developing iron, potassium, and manganese deposits from among the previously acquired by the Group."
The Congolese graduate was born in Bambama - a small town located not far from the country’s capital Brazzaville - where his father served as the Governor. When the boy turned 5 years, the civil war started, as a result of which the family was forced to leave everything behind and move out in a hurry.
"Back then, people could not stay in one place for long, and so they were moving about the country all the time. At first, the conflict between the two presidential candidates led to political instability and deterioration of the economic situation. It got worse later once armed clashes between local youth militia groups – 'Cobra',' Ninja', and' Kokoya' - emerged. The fighting took place mainly in the suburbs of Brazzaville; therefore, people were migrating to safer regions. Soon we found ourselves in Pointe-Noire, the country's second-largest city, and that is where I started attending school. It was heavily overcrowded but provided secondary education of good quality. We had biology classes and learnt about geology, stratigraphy, palaeontology. It was then when I realised that I wanted my career to be linked with these sciences," recalls Just.
The young African fellow scored high on the final school exams, and thanks to it received an offer from the local Ministry of Education to participate in the programme granting state-funded education for Congolese youth in foreign universities. Algerian and Russian universities were offered to choose from.
"There were two factors I took into consideration. The first one is that many of our public officers and business people went for studies to Russia. For instance, six of our currently serving ministers are graduates of Soviet universities. It should be seen as a quality mark of Russian higher education, something that just cannot be ignored. And the second fact that came into play has more to do with my own family. My uncle got his education in Saint Petersburg, and that helped him to build a career he could be proud of. I was, in fact, a first-year student of the Geology Department at our local university when I received an offer, but I accepted it without any hesitation. I bought a plane ticket and just went off to St. Petersburg," recalls Just.
One of the most acute problems in the Congo is unemployment. There are 5 million people in the country, of whom most are youngsters. Lots of them are having difficulties with finding a job, neither higher education can guarantee getting one. For example, graduates in liberal arts – philosophers, linguists, designers – do not have much of a choice but to become teachers at school. These specialities are simply not in demand.
"Then there are cultural differences, which also play a role. Unlike Europeans, African people do not have such freedom when it comes to choosing a profession. Parents are the ones who make a decision for high school graduates – they tell their children whom they want them to be in the future. Parent's wish is not expected to be disobeyed. And here is why young Congolese learn something they have no interest in or of no use in the labour market. I am more of the lucky ones: my family knew the outlook for the mineral sector was quite promising, and they did not interfere with my decision. The profession of mining engineer in Africa is getting more and more popular with each year. Our continent is rich in minerals, and so it has always attracted mining specialists from all across the globe. The difference is that now we see more local professionals taking jobs as geologists. In the past, to the contrary, such positions were mainly occupied by foreigners – Australians, Indians, Chinese, French, British. The competition is high, but domestic companies still tend to employ the country's nationals," says Just.
Upon return to his home country, the recent graduate realised he would have to look for a job in the times of a new economic crisis raging across Congo. Many lost their jobs then, and Just, while waiting for a better offer, accepted a position as Professor in Oil & Gas Geology at EAD University (Ecole Africaine de Developpement). Five months later, Sapro Group offered him a vacancy of the Head of the Geology and Exploration Department at the Mayoko-Minpoudi field, which the corporation had just acquired.
The Republic of the Congo had long been a colony of France, and thenceforth the country's culture has a lot in common with a French one - in particular in its attitude to higher education. In contrast to the US, where job applicants are first of all asked about the skills they have, in the Congo employers ask a prospective candidate what university they graduated from. It is thus the credibility of a particular educational institution that makes the difference for a hirer, and degrees obtained abroad are valued much higher than those from local universities. This way Just had a notable advantage over other applicants back at the interview phase.
"Students in Russia have an opportunity to work in modern laboratories with unlimited access to the academic literature on mining. That obviously puts the mining engineer with a degree from a Russian university far ahead of other competitors. Graduates of our local universities are indeed also qualified geologists. Still, they have no field experience, never worked with field-specific software, most of them have not even seen minerals as malachite or quartz. Our Government allocates funds on the renovation of universities' infrastructure and facilities. Unfortunately, due to corruption, universities rarely get to receive that money. There are seven geologists in my department. All of them studied general geology in Brazzaville - structure, composition and movement of the Earth's crust, physical and chemical properties of mineral resources. I am thereby the only mining engineer among them and the only graduate with a degree obtained abroad. Hence a fundamentally different qualification. What I do is, based on the data other geologists provide, ensure technical assistance in field development. This includes, for example, planning and arranging exploration works or geological maintenance of operational mine workings. The difference in our qualifications allows me to be the team leader and gives me the right to head the project," explains the grad.
Sapro is practising working in shifts: employees spend a month and a half at the field and next two weeks off work. Half of the working time Just dedicates to developing the field, being mostly down in the mines, while the other half he devotes to searching for new deposits in the forests.
According to Just Otakana, "Mayoko-Minpoudi employs 100 people altogether. The most valued specialists here are geologists. And if miners live in barracks, we are provided with accommodation in fully-equipped detached houses where we have everything we need to live a comfortable life. Then again, my income is five times higher than the country's average wage, and I am not even counting in free meals, transportation, and health insurance. Was it worth leaving to study abroad to have that? Sure!"
Back in 2018, Fitch Solutions, an American analytical company, part of Fitch Ratings Inc., predicted a twofold increase in the metal production volumes for the Congo over the next 10 years. This trend is already seen: by the end of 2019, cobalt production had increased by 92% and that of copper by 9%.
Sapro Mayoko SA expects the field in Niari, where Just is working, to remain exploitable for at least another hundred years. The variety of rock mass found in that department is characterised by a high content of iron ore, and the company plans to raise raw material extraction volumes to 12 million tons by 2022. The head of the corporation, Paul Obambi, states that through reaching these volumes and provided the price rate equals $70 per ton, the organisation will generate annual revenue of $840 million.
Sapro is currently investing in modernisation of its production facilities, with an increase in capacity being the primary aim. Almost 3,000 new jobs will be offered, or even severalfold more if the company's executives plans succeed, and they build the pig iron plant in the Congo. In this case, unless the enterprise chooses to employ foreign specialists, it will have to seek professionals having skills in producing metals from raw materials among local labour.