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Singapore firms minimise travel to Africa

They find other ways to continue working as the Ebola crisis spreads

[SINGAPORE] Singapore businesses with a presence in Ebola-stricken West Africa are cutting down on their employees' non-essential travels and finding alternative ways to continue working without travelling. Most are also taking other precautionary measures to protect their staff's health.

RSP Architects, acquired by the mainboard-listed Rowsley last year, currently has a building project in Ghana in West Africa which is "still at a very upstream stage" and so does not require staff to be physically there, director of business development Hasan Malik told BT. "In the long term, when the project gets off the ground and goes into construction mode, that will be a more fundamental problem but we don't anticipate the Ebola situation to drag out for that long," he added.

Its client has hired local consultants to perform the day-to-day supervisions so it does not actually have to be on the ground. "Besides, in this day and age there are other ways to keep tabs on the project: the local guys can send us photographs of the progress."

Agri-commodities trader Olam confirmed that although it has operations across West Africa - in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Nigeria, Republic of Congo and Cameroon - it has no direct presence in the afflicted states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Nigeria, where the virus spread to after an infected passenger flew in from Liberia and which has now confirmed a handful of cases, is on "heightened alert", Olam said. "We are continuing business as usual but with extra precautions in place."

It has also set up an Ebola crisis committee, issued an organisation-wide advisory on Ebola, briefed managers on symptoms so they can isolate people quickly if necessary, and intensified hygiene and safety measures even in countries not affected by the disease.

Palm oil plantation firm Golden-Agri Resources has also said that its operations in Liberia are unaffected by the virus for now. Its plantations are a few hundred kilometres from where Ebola has struck, and there has been no case of the disease where it currently operates.

Chief financial officer Rafael Concepcion said: "Operations are running as normal, but we have taken preventive measures such as screening people for illnesses and restricting non-essential travel among our employees." It has also started educating its employees on how to act responsibly when they feel unwell.

Fellow plantation player Wilmar said it has no operations in the three worst-hit states, while its plantations in other parts of West Africa remain unaffected. Its management is taking steps to ensure that its staff, their families and surrounding communities are sensitised to the virus outbreak. It has also requested its staff to avoid non-essential travel to affected areas.

Although urban consultancy Surbana's current project is in Burundi, Central Africa, it too has minimising the team's non-essential travels.

That said, essential trips will still have to be made. "If it is necessary and part of our job to go down, we will go down. But we have to make sure our guys are contactable, (we enlist the help of) International SOS to ensure their lives are safe. We have to be professional," CEO Pang Yee Ean said.

Internationally, British Airways, Emirates and two African airlines have already suspended flights to affected countries like Sierra Leon and Liberia, while foreign mining and commodity-related companies are pulling workers out of Ebola-afflicted states.

For instance, heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc has evacuated some employees from Liberia, while Canadian Overseas Petroleum has suspended a drilling project in Liberia and sent some expat employees home.

Others such as energy giants ExxonMobil and Chevron are responding more coolly, waiting to see if the danger can be contained. ExxonMobil's offices remain open.

Additional reporting by ANDREA SOH