The Ugandan government says it has signed an agreement with three foreign oil companies, clearing the way for commercialization of the country's 3.5 billion barrels of crude reserves.

Energy Minister Irene Muloni said Thursday that the memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday "provides a framework for achieving a harmonized commercialized plan" for the East African country's oil resources.

The agreement was signed with Britain's Tullow Oil, France's Total and the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which already has been licensed to develop the first oil block near Uganda's border with Congo.

Muloni said production is expected to start in 2016.

Under the agreement, some of the crude will be used to generate power locally while the rest will be refined for domestic consumption or exported as crude.