African wood industry: 10,000 micro-businesses need support for sustainable trade

first_imgA survey of 10,000 east and west African wood processing micro-businesses found that sourcing legal materials and legal compliance to be key difficulties in maintaining environmentally-ethical and legal business practices.The micro-businesses, connected and represented by a network of 21 wood industry associations, found a widespread need for more support and access to resources.The two reports from the survey results were released on Oct. 22 by the Global Timber Forum, a Washington, DC non-profit that works to build the capacity of forest and wood-based industry associations.The findings were released just ahead of Forest Legality Week, an annual gathering that draws together global forestry leaders and experts in Washington, D.C. Wood processing micro-businesses in several east, central and west African countries say they have a widespread need for more support and access to resources. Their rallying call for help is reflected in the results of a survey run by the  Global Timber Forum (GTF), a London-based non-profit that works to build the capacity of forest and wood-based industry associations for responsible trade. Information gathered through 21 wood-industry associations with a total membership of nearly 10,000 micro-businesses in several African countries led to two reports.  The reports focus on the relationship between micro-businesses and business associations in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia and Mozambique. The findings come just ahead of the second annual Forest Legality Week  in Washington, D.C., where experts from around the world will discuss a variety of forestry-related sustainability issues. Results were formed from a series of anonymized surveys conducted with multiple associations from each country.GTF’s director of policy and external affairs, Andrew Escott, said in an interview that the undertaking revealed ways to interact with micro-businesses at scale. The research illustrates the barriers and challenges to establishing sustainable timber harvests with these small operations. According to Escott, the nature of these operations can vary wildly. Both surveys used parameters of 10 or fewer employees to define a typical micro-business, which Escott further defined as often being a family business typically run by father-son teams. They can include small logging companies, sawmills, charcoal, and small skilled production companies — joinery and furniture — which usually serve the local market. Escott said that many of the companies at this small size lack any legal standing — they are often unregistered and unlicensed, and many operate by cash. That doesn’t diminish their importance, though.“It is these guys [whom] anyone with an interest in preserving forests needs to reach,” Escott said. “Their existing links with associations, identified in this research, makes this a great place to start.” However, one of the problems with looking to associations for consistent sustainability practices is that they do not have a place at the table with governments and NGOs to discuss problems and offer solutions. In addition to access, Escott said that a lack of resources and training contributes to poor practices. One common example is a lack of access to technical advice for association members. The first GTF survey noted that associations have an average number of 1.9 full time senior management and administrative staff members — with the smallest association having just one and the largest having 3.5. The second survey showed a higher average of 4 staff members, but also accounted for more positions including technical specialists, accountants, drivers and janitorial staff. Only three associations from the first survey said they have staff dedicated to taking technical questions. None were identified in the second survey.A necklace made from mpingo and another local hardwood. Photo by Sophie Tremblay for Mongabay.The reports also noted a list of constraints and key challenges for associations. They include a lack of resources and technical skills to support development of membership and active membership, and tools to support membership facing forest legality system changes. In addition, members need to understand the export market requirements and have access to market data. Without that, their ability to lobby domestically and internationally is limited. Not enough funding to support and grow membership is also an issue.Limited access to legal wood supplies and resources, and a wider global market that’s increasingly demanding sustainable practices, are also problematic for the micro-businesses. Survey respondents said there isn’t enough funding to gain access to more profitable markets, among other related issues.Some of those include lackluster performance in expertise, designs, and product development. Association members said they feel that their organizations don’t provide enough training opportunities in equipment maintenance, skills in marketing and production of basic products, research capabilities, and a focus on conservation. The report noted that, “Historically, associations have paid little attention to the importance of viable business systems, regular training and capacity building of their human resource capital.” The challenges for these associations is to implement more sustainable best practices and technologies that support harvesting a variety of wood species. None of the associations could not be reached by time of publication.“When [associations] talked about their challenges they all said they want to be able to provide a better frame for legality,” GTF’s Escott said. “What were seeing is a low representation from those advocating for the smallest operators. We don’t want these changes to put these people out completely.”Escott added that government-led sustainable harvesting practices often push micro- and small business operators into illegal timbering, and onto shaky legal ground. “Many of the changes going on in these countries are requiring increased levels of documentation and the use of technology— all good things,” Escott said. “But they need to be adapted so micro-businesses can comply, the smallest usually being the least equipped to make changes.”A lack of funding for nearly every service association is a key issue and what is most needed is a source of third party funds, Escott said. He added that the more businesses are in need of the association, the less there is to give. So additional funds will likely kickstart a cyclical process of seeking help that provides more resources, training and long-term capital which, in turn, provides associations with more resources as well.“For [businesses] an association can be the gateway to accessing funding, building their capacity and to having a voice in the larger governmental processes that are going on around them. The association is a path to legitimacy and sustainability and a potential window on the wider world that impacts on what they do today and in the future.”Forest Legality Week runs on the week of 23 Oct. – 25 Oct. and will feature a range of speakers from the World Resources Institute, Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestiere (OGF), and Forestry Commission Ghana among many universities and other NGOs.Banner image: A woodcarver makes a carving of a rhinoceros on the outskirts of Lunga Lunga, a town on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Photo by Nathan Siegel for Mongabay. 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