On Africa Day we remember how during the time of the USSR thousands of Soviet citizens lived and worked on the continent. By the beginning of the nineties, the majority had returned. How do those who remained live there now?
In 2019, we interviewed a remarkable woman – Marina Hamada, Russian head of the chromatography analysis service of the Algerian state oil and gas company Sonatrach. She told us about her life, what differentiates Russian products on the Algerian market, and what can be done to reinforce the position of Russian technology there.
RA Journal: You’re a Russian and occupy one of the top engineering positions in Sonatrach, Africa’s biggest company. How did that come about?
Marina Hamada: I was born and grew up in Baku. I graduated from the Institute of Oil Chemistry there, where I met my future husband. We got married in 1984 and moved to Algeria a year later. At that time, Boumerdes was a university centre. As strange as it may seem, there were not many Algerians in the town, and I’m not just referring to foreign specialists. Many of them were Soviet. Now there are hardly any Russians left, everyone left at the beginning of the nineties.
To begin with, I brought up my children and studied 2 new languages – French and Arabic. Later I had more free time and went to work in Sonatrach. As I didn’t have citizenship at that time, I worked on annual contracts for foreigners, and later on a permanent basis. Now I have a reputation as being someone who is not afraid to work and who does it to a high standard.
It’s remarkable when one considers that Algeria in general is a closed country where there are not many foreigners and there are strict controls. Are you one of a kind in Sonatrach?
I know of at least two other exiles from the USSR. Yes, it is quite difficult for a foreigner, particularly one without citizenship, to join Sonatrach. The traditional outlook of Algerian society also probably plays a role.
You make conclusions about gas composition, the evaluation of investment opportunities of projects worth billions of dollars relies on your signature at the end of the day. Have you encountered “pressure”? Or requests to re-think the figures again?
I haven’t encountered direct pressure, but there have been moments. I once did an analysis for a foreign company: they had dry gas, i.e. basically methane with minimal impurities, and they said “please find us some liquid fractions”! In dry gas. I had to explain for a long time that it wasn’t possible. Maybe they wanted to alter the results of the research and assign a property to the gas that it didn’t have in order to increase the commercial attractiveness of the project.
You also are an active participant in procuring equipment. Do you have Russian suppliers? How are they regarded in Algeria?
Russian equipment is used in Algeria, it is purchased via intermediaries, usually European. There have been attempts by companies to penetrate the local market independently or with the help of agents, but they haven’t succeeded yet, most likely they are inadequately prepared.
It’s a shame because Russian equipment has very good chances of success here. Firstly, it is of a high quality. Secondly, even the highest Russian prices are lower than those with whom we work on a permanent basis. However, there are several important points that our companies don’t take into consideration.
There have been attempts by Russian companies to penetrate the local market independently or with the help of agents, but they haven’t succeeded yet, most likely they are inadequately prepared.
For example, if a Russian company is interested in selling equipment to Algeria. We look at their catalogue, prices, they receive informal approval from employees, everything suits us. We declare a tender, and suddenly they submit an incoherently formed commercial proposal which doesn’t even correspond with their own catalogue, nor to our requests, and because of this the equipment does not pass the selection phase.
It also happens that Russian companies count on agreeing via unofficial channels, not by participating in the tender. This doesn’t work here – it’s illegal. The procurement process is quite long, but simple. There are 3 selection phases: checking the documents submitted, then evaluation of technical characteristics and a price competition. After this, the decision is made. There are nuances in the conditions of bank guarantees, but on the whole it’s a transparent process that has to be adhered to.
What other mistakes do Russian companies make?
Some entrust sales to unqualified intermediaries who cannot or do not want to present the product well. We had the same experience. A Kazakh company decided to participate in a tender, but the Jordanian intermediaries really put the prices up and submitted the wrong set of documents. Of course, nothing came of it in the end.
It’s important not to be too far from the process at this stage and demonstrate yourself how the product satisfies technical requirements and support it without false insincerity.
Sometimes it happens that Russian companies submit a description of the product and stop at that, losing the initiative. It gives the impression that they only want to come here to sign the contract. Or even better not come at all and just get the money. It’s important not to be too far from the process at this stage and demonstrate yourself how the product satisfies technical requirements and support it without false insincerity.
In recent years, the procedure for participating in procurement has become significantly simpler for foreign companies. Documents are no longer required in French everywhere, for example. Algeria is looking for innovative technologies and equipment, new designs. They are not interested in yesterday’s solutions, even tried and tested ones. The road is open, come and work for your health.
Is there a niche in which the lack of Russian offers is particularly felt?
Our biggest demand right now is for training specialists. Practice is required instead of theory, on the job training is a future niche for Russian companies. Our graduates come onto the oilfield, and what do they do? They have only seen an oil well in a textbook. It means that we have to waste time and resources training them again on site. Therefore, if there’s a chance, then we need to move and act precisely in this direction. Everyone is interested in it.
Our biggest demand right now is for training specialists. Practice is required instead of theory, on the job training is a future niche for Russian companies.
Previously there was a chance to work with real equipment during training and was a strong feature of the Soviet education system here in Algeria. Some equipment still remains from that time in universities. The experience from the USSR was handed down to Russian companies.
What is life like in Algeria?
I like the good people here. When I didn’t have Algerian citizenship, I had a few problems. For example, in Algeria all the movements of foreigners are tracked, you have to get special permission. Due to increased attention to security issues, which perhaps now are not so relevant, a difficult situation arose for Algerian citizens to visit Russia.
We encountered it ourselves. Following our arrival, our plane spent about an hour in the airport waiting for a police convoy and for all the checks to be carried out.
Yes, you have to wait for the police to carry out all the necessary checks, which often drags out. This relates to tourists and those without residency. We hope that these procedures will become easier for Russian citizens, then their numbers will increase.
Algeria is a great place for tourists. Mild climate, Mediterranean Sea, Roman ruins and deserts with unique cave drawings. I think that Algeria is not so popular with Russian tourists because it’s not easy to obtain a tourist visa. It’s the same with Algerian tourists to Russia: sometimes local tour companies organize tours to Moscow and St Petersburg, but they are very expensive and infrequent.