The Ugandan government said on Wednesday it had shortlisted 17 oil companies to bid for six exploration blocks in the east African nation, which has found commercial quantities of oil and aims to pump crude in 2018.

Uganda in February announced its first competitive bidding round for exploration blocks, with six of them covering 3,000 square kilometres on offer, and aims to issue licenses to successful bidders by the end of this year.

A statement published on the state-run Petroleum Exploration and Production Department (PEPD) website showed the 17 companies are from 11 countries including the United States, Russia, China and Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria.

London-listed Tullow Oil, which is already operating in Uganda alongside France‘s Total and China’s CNOOC , was also on the PEPD list.

The PEPD said the 17 applicants will be further evaluated and those qualified will be issued with bidding documents and a model production sharing agreement on August 20.

“Government has planned to award new petroleum exploration, development and production licenses before the end of this year,” Kabagambe Kalisa, the permanent secretary of the ministry for energy and mineral development, said.

In 2006 Uganda discovered oil reserves in its Albertine rift basin along its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo estimated by government geologists at 6.5 billion barrels. Less than 10 percent of the Albertine graben has been licensed so far, according to the government.

East Africa has been a focus of hydrocarbon exploration after substantial crude oil deposits were also found in Kenya, and vast gas reserves discovered in Tanzania and Mozambique.

Source: Reuters UK