I have built a strong foundation - outgoing UNOC chief executive

Tuesday August 6 2019

Dr Josephine Kasalamwa Wapakabulo, outgoing

Dr Josephine Kasalamwa Wapakabulo, outgoing chief executive officer of Uganda National Oil Company during an interview last week. Photo by Rachel Mabala 

By Fredrick Musisi

CEO resignations are to say the least, unconventional in Uganda. What else did we miss other than the reasons you listed in your resignation letter?
The reality is, and this is something I knew in my career that when I got to the point where I wanted to start a family, I always said, if I had the ability to go into a more flexible working environment; I would. There was no other dynamic. And I mean starting my own family.

Did the appointing authority find the reasons convincing?
Yes, they were and I mean, you saw our board’s letter; it was a sure acceptance letter. I had a good working relationship with our board, the shareholders, and all the relevant stakeholders. I am very fortunate that my career today always gave me the option of going back to consulting, which allows more flexibility.

You were an inspiration to women, particularly those aiming for executive positions but also in the oil sector which is male-dominated. What does your resignation signal?
I hope it inspires women to know they have a choice. You can have a choice like me to climb up to the top, and when you reach there, you can chose to leave to focus on family. I think we are living with too much either, or; we have to look at careers as a journey, where at some point you have to make certain choices.

How have the last three years on the job been, and what are some of the key highlights of your tenure?
So, my biggest highlight are the people. I was the first employee in an organisation that hardly existed. Now we are 90 plus. I have been amazed at how hard working, passionate and committed Ugandans part of UNOC are.

Having a board that I got along with well has been another highlight, and then the projects; we have made some big achievements.
The production licences (to Tullow and Total E&P) were issued a few weeks after I had taken office. Since then, we signed the Inter Government Agreement for the pipeline; the Front End Engineering Designs for the pipeline and oil fields (Tilenga and Kingfisher); yes we are still finalising discussions to Final Investment Decision but there has been so much progress.

We got the Jinja Storage Terminal that has been up and running. Soon, we are going to do transportation via Lake Victoria using barges: we are in the selection process for the storage terminal and industrial park: we had permission to do bulk trading as UNOC for the crude plan.
I am leaving behind a strong foundation; we were using the balance scorecard approach, we had a strategy. Now we have a five-year plan.

Any challenges?
The biggest challenge I found in this role was managing expectations. I don’t think I had appreciated that challenge; we were not here then but there were a lot of oil production start dates that came with expectations here and there.

So, recognising that we need to communicate better was a big eye opener. Getting funding to run UNOC wasn’t always easy, and one of the things am proud of is, when we disagreed with other stakeholders on projects, it was never personal; I felt all relationships were focused on passion to get the projects delivered. But like for any job, there were always ups and downs.

As both the first employee and CEO, what did you set out to accomplish?
My biggest ultimate goal, was to make sure that whoever comes after me should excel. So, we got the best people: put in place a good corporate governance strategy: all the policies and procedures; human resource manuals: people development—these are things that are probably not exciting as the projects but very critical in the foundation of an organisation. As the first CEO, my biggest focus was on foundation, which then would take the projects forward.

Talk of the foundation, how solid is it? There is a tendency of successors unbundling what they found, and that has crippled many institutions?
Besides the people, it is also all about corporate governance; when things are written down they last. We had a very detailed strategy on the balance scorecard, which covered from financial, internal working, stakeholder engagement; sometimes looked at it as if it was me. But if you don’t get your internal workings right, it won’t last. There is no single silver bullet, it is a mix of things. Ultimately, it revolves around people.

Of all that you’re leaving behind, what are you most proud of?
The people employed by the organisation. You can have good documents but when you don’t have the right people, it might not work. We have the right people; every one’s recruitment has been transparent, audited, and the best people for the job are in the job.

How hard/easy was the job; I mean you didn’t come from an oil & gas background as such, nor from a similar top position?
Yeah, but when you get a job, you are product of your history. In my career, I had mentors who really kept me honest and humble throughout my career development so I am not full of my own importance, and being open.

I learnt early that we were not always going to agree; it is how we disagree—that is the key. So, whether it was internal here with the team or with other stakeholders; you fight and argue but get through it. But coming from an engineering background, I am a very pragmatic person.

And as a woman CEO in a male dominated-industry, how hard was it?
Not really, and it is because coming from an engineering background is a male dominated industry. Actually, this was much easier because my previous experience was in male dominated, none-black, and older. So, I learnt that the most important thing is to be myself; that I was always going to meet people who didn’t like the fact that I was a woman, and was younger. But as long as people delivered, you have to give it time.

My impression, to put it mildly, is you were not liked that much, and often UNOC felt like on another horizon. I could be wrong in my assessment but why did it feel like so?
I, in my view, got along with all stakeholders. Did they all like me? I don’t know. But I cannot control how people feel about me, so I learnt not to stress about what I can’t control. Like I said, we always agreed and disagreed but it was never personal.

If you agree with anyone all the time, then you know there is something wrong. But we all have different backgrounds, experiences, none of us is perfect. The most important thing is how we deal with it. I’m not the one to hold grudges; we were here to do a job, so what mattered is getting the job done.

You told me in our first interview that the “beauty of what we are doing is, others have done it before.” What is UNOC’s direction?
We developed a detailed five-year strategy and it is on two pillars; internally, where have built a five-year initiatives: objectives linked to people’s performance. On the projects, we have what we called the foundation projects, which includes the upstream, refinery and pipeline.

So, again it’s working with other stakeholders such as Petroleum Authority Uganda, ministry of Energy and others to deliver. Everything is documented. With systems in place, I am confident everything will progress well without me.

Did you envisage that you’d be leaving halfway?
No, I took this job with a five-year contract; life just happened and now that it did, I had to make a choice.

Talk of the foundation you’re leaving behind; there are murmurs of some of the employees, some without the requisite experience but have got jobs due to powerful connections, State House, the Bush war clan…
I am always fascinated by rumours and murmurs.
One thing I can confidently say about UNOC is that no one has come here, me included, from any kind of god-father or special arrangement. We have a thorough recruitment process that is transparent and has been audited.

The year started off well with a sense of optimism. All of a sudden, everything went into lull; what does it mean for UNOC which is supposed to cash in on behalf of the country?
What I can say is, in any negotiations, you cannot predict when everyone is going to agree.
Behind the scenes, everyone right from the President, are doing the best they can to push everything forward; all of us want it sooner than later. With all the history, everyone doesn’t want to go back to delays.

Can you hazard a guess when oil production will possibly start?
[Laughs] No, am not hazarding a guess. I have learnt not to put dates and then it doesn’t happen; it is a double edged sword. It raises people’s expectations, then it doesn’t happen. Again, I reiterate, there is focus on a process and everyone wants to get there as quickly as possible.

Under the circumstance that the key cash projects, refinery, pipeline, and upstream, so how can UNOC make itself relevant in the interim?
We are already making money from the Jinja Storage Terminal. That will increase when barge transportation starts from Kisumu to Jinja. It is very exciting and it should be happening within weeks.
The Kampala storage partner, we have got responses—huge international actors partnering with locals; the Kabaale industrial park.

You’ve been in the thick of things. Do you think there is an enabling environment for UNOC to flourish?
I believe there is, including some of the policies we are yet to test out.

Her assessment of the oil sector
There has been some delay, we cannot ignore that. But I am hoping that once we take that final investment decision—the landscape will change due to the various investments. But we need ensure there is benefit across the whole value chain. I leave confident that UNOC will flourish, and the sector will move forward.

Uganda National Oil Company at a glance

UNOC is the statutory body mandated to manage the country’s commercial interests in the nascent oil sector, including marketing of the country’s share of petroleum received in kind, and to develop in depth expertise in the oil and gas industry.
The company was incorporated in June 2015, and its body structure put in place starting with the board later that year.

Subsequently, Dr Wapakabulo, daughter to the former speaker of Parliament, was appointed as chief executive officer—the first employee—on June, 1st, 2016.

Daily Monitor understands that the UNOC board led by businessman Emmanuel Katongole has tapped Ms Proscovia Nabbanja, the chief operating officer for upstream, to serve as interim chief executive pending a fresh search for a substantive one.

The government through UNOC requires about $1b (approx. Shs3.8 trillion) to finance its equity stake in the upstream and midstream projects leading to the country starting commercial oil production.

At least three quarters of the $1b will cover government’s participating stake in the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and the Greenfield 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) oil refinery. The two projects are pegged to a capital expenditure of $7.5b (Shs28 trillion) to be raised through a mix debt and equity.

On the other hand is development of the oil fields by the oil companies, France’s Total E&P and China’s Cnooc, tagged to a cost of $6.7b (Shs24trillion). UNOC’s stake in this venture will be borne by the oil companies up to sometime in the future when the body has gained the financial muscle.

UNOC is also looking at participating in investment in the proposed Kabaale Industrial Park in Hoima which will also host the oil refinery, the crude pipeline export hub and other supporting amenities such as warehouses and freight and forwarding unit. This is besides the Kampala Storage Terminal in Buloba, which will serve as a distribution centre for refined oil products.

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