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Bringing Africa’s artisanal timber sector into the formal mix

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In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the artisanal logging and milling sector directly employs some 25,000 people and produces more than a million cubic metres of wood every year.

Whilst governments around the world typically do all they can to support small and medium sized enterprises, there is one industry in one region that is largely ignored – and in many cases criminalised.

Domestic wood or artisanal logging markets in sub-Saharan Africa (as oppose to large-scale commercial felling) employ hundreds of thousands of people, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research. It is an industry that provides employment and wages for entire communities and that has huge socio-economic and environmental importance. There are also tremendous opportunities to introduce new technology and inspire innovation within the artisanal timber sector, which is vital for developing sustainable and inclusive forestry practices in timber rich nations. Yet the sector remains largely unregulated and under-represented.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the artisanal logging and milling sector directly employs some 25,000 people and produces more than a million cubic metres of wood every year – around 85% of which is sold domestically. The remainder is exported to neighbouring countries. This is a domestic market worth upwards of US$100m per year in the DRC alone. Although the Congolese government has introduced a series of forestry management policies since 2000 in order to monitor and protect its forests, none of these take into account the enormous artisanal sector and its participants.

Africa’s artisanal timber sector is the key to sustainable forestry

Certainly, more efforts must be made to understand forest-linked investments in Africa, and especially within the artisanal sector because there are increasingly larger numbers of independent enterprises operating informally and generally invisibly as loggers, lumber producers or timber buyers. Doing so will bring them into the formal economy, and enable them to rightfully participate in the continent’s significant timber and forestry sector.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) reports that an increasing share of the DRC’s four million cubic metres of timber currently produced each year under artisanal permits is being bought by informal Chinese timber traders. How many of these permits are legitimate and why aren’t they extended to all small-scale loggers in a regulated manner?

The EU’s Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), was created in order to prevent what it considers to be unsustainable logging and corrupt practices in unregulated domestic markets. This policy led to the 2013 European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) act, which forces EU member states to source only from what it considers to be legal suppliers. The EU then went on to introduce Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), requesting that individual nations document exactly where their exported timber comes from. Six countries have signed these agreements: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia and the Republic of Congo.

Nevertheless illegal and irresponsible logging continue to be rampant across these countries and the rest of Africa, threatening not just the livelihoods of small-scale timber players but the environment as well. Reports by Greenpeace and other conservation organisations have uncovered that logging companies, local and international, are getting around these new industrial logging permit requirements through the illegal use of artisanal permits. As a result, many local small-scale loggers are left out of the mix.

By bringing the hundreds of thousands of individuals working in this industry into the formal sector, Africa’s timber industries and companies will stand to benefit from increased transparency, equal opportunity and sustainability.

There is enormous lost potential in the lives and careers of those working illegally, many of whom have grown up in small communities and who are passionate about their natural environment. These are people who typically respect the land they live off, who arguably care more for their forests and trees than global giants. However, out of sheer necessity to put food on the table, many of these logging communities risk engaging in illegal activities. If they are brought into the formal mix though, they stand to become Africa’s greatest forest shepherds and guardians. Future generations stand to benefit from sustainable forestry practices with the knowledge that they can continue to live off the forests, earn wages legally, and even build profitable businesses for generations to come.

The sustainable future of African timber is a global responsibility

The solution is clear: African governments and trade organisations must work with international organisations, such as the EU, to ensure that well-intentioned trade policies apply to all producers; whether or not the timber is to be consumed domestically or otherwise. If a regional, joined-up timber policy framework could be created, governments could incentivise sustainable forestry and create efficiencies within the supply chain, while focusing on fostering innovation and entrepreneurship within timber industries. This is already happening in the agriculture and ICT sectors in many sub-Saharan countries so why not the timber sector as well?

This is where private sector companies, whether local or international, large or small, can do more to ensure that their timber products are sourced from certified forests. In Africa, less than 1% of forests are currently certified but if importers of African timber continue to adhere to best practice, certification will become increasingly common place.

IKEA’s wood procurement policy called IWAY, is a great example of how the private sector can take the lead. It sets uniform sustainability requirements for IKEA’s timber product suppliers worldwide. All of IKEA’s catalogue suppliers must meet the same requirements and are audited annually. The WWF-UK Timber Scorecard was founded on the basis that if all timber and timber products were responsibly sourced, there would be next to zero illegal logging and deforestation. It measures the yearly progress of timber and timber products buyers in the UK on their sustainability footprint. Large retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons were amongst the top 22 UK companies committed to sourcing only certified timber products.

There is also the opportunity to utilise private money and expertise by creating public private partnerships (PPPs), which could accelerate job creation and stimulate even greater innovation in the sector.

The role of innovation in Africa’s artisanal timber industries

It is time for the hands of modern economy to reach deep into Africa’s timber sector and create mechanisms and ecosystems that enable global retailers to buy legally from artisanal loggers as well. There is so much potential for innovative SMEs and creative industries to emerge more constructively around the artisanal sector if the market is open to them.

In the innovation space, I would look forward to exploring ways that urban manufacturing and creative movements such as the Maker Movement, Fiction Factory and Angola’s new social incubator, Fábrica de Sabão, can play a role in jump-starting a new timber innovation ecosystem for rural communities. Sharing know-how and technologies such as 3D printing and computer numerical control (CNC) machining with smallholders or even youth communities can help to unlock creative potential, drive innovation, and launch new joint ventures in urban manufacturing and design thus giving rise to a new breed of artisanal timber entrepreneurs at a grassroots level.

Opening up the market would also enable small-scale timber businesses to contribute to the region’s growing tourism industry and present individual countries as purveyors of uniquely African craftsmanship rather than being merely major exporters of timber to other world economies.

Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais is the Founder and Chairman of the Advisory Board at Quantum Global Group – an investment firm that focuses on Africa. He is also the Founder of the African Innovation Foundation and Innovation Prize for Africa.

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