Canadian geologist Tako Koning doesn’t like the questions – and who can blame him? – about challenging conditions and the seeming impossibility of making a difference in places where many have tried … and failed.
He has been working in Angola for more than a decade, so knows full well the cost of 30 years of civil war, not to mention the general perception – he’ll tell you it’s a misconception – that all of Africa suffers from insurmountable problems.
But he’d rather talk about oil and water and something as simple as nets.
And about making a difference.
Koning, an AAPG member who was born in the Netherlands but emigrated to Canada where he received degrees in both geology and economics, could have been forgiven if, after retirement, he decided to play tennis or golf or relax on his 240-acres of wilderness land in the foothills of Alberta.
Instead he decided to stay in Angola where he spent some of his career with ChevronTexaco.
“Certainly there’s a lot of problems in this continent,” he said, preferring to focus more on the solutions that science and technology can cure than the politics of how it got so bad.
He knows that as a consequence of the civil wars, the basic infrastructure of the country, including schools and medical facilities, the country needs rebuilding.
And then this man who could live anywhere in the world, says:
“In my own small way, I’d like to be involved in the reconstruction of Angola.”
The Protecting Veil
One of the ways he’s been involved in that reconstruction, on a business front, is in the arena of oil production, having worked globally in the petroleum industry for 36 years – 29 of them for Texaco in both managerial and technical positions.
“I must say that professionally, this has been an exciting place to work as a petroleum geologist, seeing oil production go up from 70,000 BOPD to about two million BOPD today.”
Today, Angola is the second largest oil producer in sub-Sahara Africa next to Nigeria and is now one of the premier countries in the world for deepwater petroleum exploration.
Ask Koning, though, about what that increase in production has meant for the Angolan people, and he’ll admit it’s not an easy thing to measure in Angola or, for that matter, anywhere else. He does report, however, that conditions there are “significantly improving” in terms of road building, improved infrastructure and increased jobs for young people.
But Koning knows that the country’s resources aren’t just below the ground; he cares about the people, and as such he’s the chairman of a group called The Mosquito Net Project, which provides insecticide-covered mosquito nets – most made in Angola – to families that can’t afford them to protect against malaria.
It is a special source of pride for him. The Mosquito Net Project, all things considered, is an easy thing to both achieve and explain – quite an accomplishment in a place where simple solutions rarely present themselves.
“If I had more time to work on it, I would love to expand it more,” he said. “It really sells itself.
“Most of the contributions have come from Luanda-based oil companies and oil services companies,” he added. “They are glad to contribute to such a project where they feel their donations are well spent.”
And that’s because the solution to malaria, which is still the number one killer of children in Africa, is largely preventable by these nets. Since the organization started raising funds in 2001, it has raised almost $100,000 and bought more than 12,000 nets – most made in Angola.
Quenching Their Thirst
One of the reasons he may be pressed for time is Koning also works as a residential representative for Yme, a Norwegian humanitarian, non-governmental organization that focuses on water and sanitation issues in the country, working with Angolan officials building sanitation facilities, latrines and areas for garbage disposal.
It’s a volunteer position, allowing him to use his expertise to coordinate funding and other support for the drilling of water wells in rural areas.
Add Yme to the Mosquito Net effort and to his work as an adviser for Tullow Oil and Koning may be the busiest retired geologist in the country.
“I should point out that I am involved in both oil and aid work here,” he said. “It is indeed an unusual situation, but that’s what I have been doing now for five years since retiring from Texaco (ChevronTexaco).”
As for Yme, a politically and religiously neutral organization, Koning is the only non-Angolan working for the group, which he says is often a benefit.
“I fit in well, especially since I can do things for them where I can take advantage of my being an expatriate,” he said, adding that this allows him to use his contacts with oil and oil service companies, embassies, etc., for fundraising purposes.
Because It Matters
Koning, who has worked in Newfoundland, Indonesia and Nigeria, arrived in Angola in 1996, as Texaco’s assets development manager. He has led expeditions, co-authored guide books and papers, presented papers at international conferences, and been given awards from both Canadian and international geologic conferences.
But he says these days he is doing the most good by working both sides of the Angolan fence, if you will – oil for Tullow, water for Yme.
“I am in a classic situation,” he said of this charitable, commercial tract, “proving that one can professionally mix up oil and water and make progress with both.”
He says there is nothing more rewarding than providing water for those that don’t have it and mosquito nets where malaria is rampant.
“Both potentially save lives,” he said. “That is one of the main reasons why I stay here.”
But there are other reasons.
“The Angolans are super-friendly, hospitable people,” he continued. “Also it’s been fascinating to live here and see the changes occurring as Angola goes through the transition of so many years of civil war to a time now of stability, reconstruction and revitalization.
“Also, we have traveled extensively through the country, and even though there remains in parts of the countryside major landmine problems, the interior is magnificent.”
Asked, though, about the successes of his work, Koning is under no illusions – after all, little comes easy in Africa.
"I would not describe any as a triumph,” he said, “but certainly a few of them have given me great satisfaction."
He sees improvement, though, every day on the streets of Luanda. Literally. The streets are choked with cars, indicating, he believes, a resurgence in the capital city's economy.
He says managing the traffic requires "patience and hard nerves" – traffic, as it turns out, that both infuriates and heartens him.
And keeps him in Angola.