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Energy of Africa Draws the Eyes of Houston

hOUSTON, Sept. 22 - When Angola recently opened its only consulate outside New York, few people here were surprised that Houston was chosen.

Texas already leads the nation in trade and commerce with Africa. More than 1,000 Houston companies do business there, and 60 have significant subsidiaries on the continent, according to the city of Houston.

The city may have a way to go before it becomes a de facto commercial capital to Africa the way Miami is for much of Latin America, but it is becoming increasingly important to African commerce and diplomacy. And the city is becoming a significant starting point for affluent Africans seeking to do business in the United States.

The reason is oil. This is the energy capital of the United States, and West African countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria are increasingly important suppliers of oil. They already account for about 14 percent of all American oil imports, and are forecast to supply 20 percent soon.

That has drawn giant energy corporations like Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco to the region, as well as midsize companies in related fields, like Bivac International, a company that inspects cargo at ports, and the Hanover Compressor Company, a provider of natural gas compression equipment.

"We already have a presence in Nigeria, but we want to be in Angola," said Steve Russom, Hanover's vice president for product development and technology. "The domestic oil and gas market is kind of flat, but Houston's still the epicenter for the energy industry, essentially the place where we can put together deals anywhere."

The interest of energy companies in West Africa is encouraging ventures in a variety of fields. EDI Architecture, like dozens of other companies here, is betting its future on strengthening ties to Africa. It designed the Angolan consulate here, a luxurious corporate suite discreetly decorated with the burgundy and gold colors of the nation's flag.

The hunger for additional deals is not lost on Houston's leaders. Mayor Lee P. Brown, for instance, led the first trade mission of any American city to Luanda, the Angolan capital, this month. He went with 20 executives interested in reaching business agreements in Angola, a southwestern African country about twice the size of Texas and rich in oil.

Mr. Brown also visited neighboring Namibia, a mineral-rich former German colony of two million people. The port of Houston concluded the trip with an agreement to provide consulting advice to the Namibian port of Walvis Bay.

EDI Architecture was among the more experienced participants, having already built American-style residential compounds in Angola for Exxon Mobil and Angola's national petroleum company. It is currently building a 20-story office tower in Luanda.

"It's not like there are Wal-Marts or Home Depots in Africa where people with money can consume," said Darcy Garneau, associate principal at EDI, which has opened an office in Luanda. "When we build a residential compound there we bring in everything down to the forks and knives, and that's an opportunity for us."

Whetting the appetite for more opportunities are expectations that the expansion of West Africa's oil industry is just beginning. It is expected to account for one of every five barrels of growth in global oil production capacity in the next decade, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

New ventures in smaller countries like Chad, the Congo Republic, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Niger are expected to account for much of the growth.

"Conducting business in the region requires a healthy appetite for risk," said Rogers Beall, a businessman here with a contract to help negotiate oil exploration agreements for Guinea-Bissau, a West African country of 1.3 million whose president, Kumba Yala, was ousted in a bloodless coup last week. Mr. Beall said he expected the military officers in charge of the government, led by Gen. Veríssimo Correia Seabra, or other transitional leaders to continue to use his advice on moving forward with oil exploration plans.

Despite such complications along the way, prospects in Africa are drawing many companies in Houston that are not in the energy business but are related to it. Charter airlines, construction companies, port inspectors and transportation companies based here are trying to seize on Africa-related opportunities

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