Opportunities in timber value chain in Rwanda and East Africa

By | 2019-07-16T09:53:29+00:00 July 16th, 2019|

In Rwanda, the sourcing of materials for structures, furniture, fuel and the need for arable land are all interlinked, reflecting a complex relationship between the holistic economic value of agricultural and other market pressures.

By MASS Design Group

‘One Health’ is a United Nations approach to integrating policy and design to improve health outcomes, emphasising that human, animal and ecological health are inextricably intertwined. MASS Design Group, a non-profit design collective based in Rwanda, has made One Health an integral component to our design and engineering processes, decision making and impact metrics. We search for partners, manufacturers and methods that can invest in and help reinforce emerging markets supporting this approach. One of these emerging markets is the timber market.

Despite distinct achievements (forest policy development, law enforcement, afforestation and land registration) the forestry sector in Rwanda has not experienced the same rapid development and growth as other areas of the economy in the last decade. One notable example of a large long-term concession given to a private investor by the state is the buffer zone of Nyungwe National Park, now a certified forestry operation. Aside from this, two of the most significant players in the forestry sector are small-scale agroforestry programmes and small cooperative plantations of eucalyptus trees, harvesting more than 80% of the country’s firewood and charcoal. Biomass currently meets 83% of Rwanda’s energy needs and although some positive steps have been made – such as the ban of fuelwood for brick making – more than 90% of rural households still use charcoal or wood for cooking. Dependency on wood fuel limits the opportunity for timber export, as well as its application in construction.

MASS Design Group has investigated opportunities to sustainably harvest timber from regional sources for several current projects in Rwanda. These projects are designed in a way that can be replicated by local communities and encourage local jurisdictions to consider the impacts of the built environment. Through our recent experiences in the construction industry, we have observed three key issues in the value chain:

Supply chain capacity. Harvesting and processing of wood is largely carried out informally, either manually or in small scale operations. The supply chain lacks appropriate equipment, knowledge and regulations to supply sustainably harvested wood that is dried, graded and treated to meet structural engineering codes. Section sizes are limited as wood is often harvested young.

Unsustainable harvest. The need for firewood and charcoal as cooking fuel exceeds the need for construction materials. This practice pollutes the environment and contributes to respiratory diseases. Developing a market for other sources of energy for cooking will increase availability of timber for construction.

Unethical practices. Forest law enforcement in Rwanda is very strict. Regionally, however, widespread illegal logging has devastated forest resources, which is especially prevalent in neighbouring DRC.

A One Health based agroforestry and silvicultural approach to revamping and reorganising the timber industry in East Africa can provide more value to stakeholders and a measurable benefit to the environment. Strengthening the supply chain relies on all players – from forest managers to building material yard owners – to manage forests, dry, grade, treat and store timber appropriately. Introducing new products, like engineered timber sections and pressed board products, will further increase the usability and efficiency of forest yield. Increasing the number of native tree species cultivated can add resilience to plantation crops.

In order to realise a more robust value chain, policy and code can be improved to better support the timber industry and engineers. Codifying requirements with explicit reference to the species available in the region will allow for engineers and architects to confidently specify timber and subsequently the market will demand those standards in products. While great progress has been made in policy at a national level, regional and global policy needs to strengthen to address logging and trade of illegally harvested materials across the region.

Strengthening the supply chain will produce more economic value in increased efficiency of yields, innovative products brought to market and more quality control and processing jobs. Beyond the economic benefit, if approached correctly, focus on the supply chain can also harbour substantial ecological benefits. Coupling timber production and processing with a focus on native species will build back biodiversity, soil health and disease resilience. Agroforestry can be introduced at a broader scale to add resilience to the agriculture and forestry industries as well as expand income streams for plantations and cooperatives alike.

A diversified timber industry can contribute to a more sustainable construction industry in Rwanda. If designed intentionally to be replicable on a national level as well as with local communities and jurisdictions, advancements can lead to global reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions.

References
  • Blondel, N, [2014]. Forest Governance and Timber Trade Flows Within, to and from Eastern and Southern African Countries, Rwanda Study [online].
    Available from: https://europa.eu/capacity4dev/file/21147/download?token=UUBuRts_
  • Republic of Rwanda Ministry of Infrastructure, (2015). Energy Sector Strategic Plan [online]. Rwanda: MINIFRA. [Viewed 23/06/19].
    Available from: http://www.mininfra.gov.rw/fileadmin/user_upload/new_tender/Energy_Sector_Strategic_Plan.pdf
  • Rwanda Energy Group, [2018]. Biomass [online]. Available from: www.reg.rw/what-we-do/biomass/