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Project developers and financiers spend inordinate amounts of time and money assessing risks and their mitigation. But when traditional credit and political risk calculations are being made, they still too often overlook the populations whose land they are building on, even if they think they have community engagement in hand. Disgruntled populations may express their frustration and even violently turn on developments that seem beyond their control, and that threaten their (sometimes literally) sacred home turf. How different might Nigerian history be if Royal Dutch Shell had built initial consensus and equitable relations in the Niger Delta, rather than cutting deals with elites in Lagos and Abuja?

With their “very different characteristics, different religions, different pastoral communities… engagement really depends on the community itself and what you intend to do with that community,” one Kenyan specialist told African Energy's Africa Investment Exchange: Nairobi meeting. A developer could be greeted initially with a welcome dance or by herders carrying Kalashnikovs. “When you start a project, you have to understand that [the community] have their own ways of doing things, their particular culture and values” and build that understanding into the project.

Infrastructure projects are, unsurprisingly, often led by engineers, who “tend to lack the soft skills needed to understand complex local problems and politics”. But a body of knowledge and experience is building up to help deliver projects that bring local communities with them. Participants at AIX: Nairobi agreed on the importance of community engagement; the house was divided on whether executives felt their companies were doing enough.

Kenya’s lively community politics and diverse populations have created challenges that have halted several projects. The Kinangop Wind project was cancelled in 2016 when, after shortfalls in public participation, the government called in its vital letter of support following delays caused by land issues (AE 319/6). More recently, a coal-fired power project in Lamu was shelved, with the government citing local concerns (AE 396/5). Power Africa’s useful response to Kinangop was to compile A Guide to Community Engagement for Power Projects in Kenya.

Companies have established specialist departments developing best practice on the ground along the project cycle. Building transmission lines across a country where, government data show, 88% of the population live on 18% of the land, Ketraco starts by employing experts trained in social work and with local knowledge to engage with their hosts. Another manager urged developers to “properly identify stakeholders, not just the landowners, and properly invest in a stakeholder management plan”.

Managing land-related issues can be critical on a continent where many people occupy land without holding any formal title. Tullow Oil has experienced problems managing relationships with local communities as it develops its South Lokichar oil fields (AE 382/1).

Problems can be aggravated whenever more stakeholders – and chancers – get involved as a project enters its construction phase. “A strategic risk assessment is essential, because each stage of construction gives rise to different challenges,” an AIX panellist commented. This ranges from requests for employment, to handling a potentially wide range of grievances (for which a clear process, managed in accessible offices away from the work site, is essential), to the need for “constant engagement with current and former politicians”, whose intervention may be positive, but also destructive and costly.

Another panellist noted that “stakeholders don’t usually change but politicians do, so managing expectations is important”, adding: “We never start a project in an election year.” As another participant put it, from the poorest citizens through to chiefs and national politicians, “managing expectations is probably one of the most important things in community engagement”.