I was privileged to visit South Africa with a team on an exposure visit in December 2022.
Our task was to look at the booming furniture industry there and what lessons we could bring back home and implement.
That visit has remained the most eye-opening experience regarding sustainable commercial forestry.
Seveny per cent of forests in South Africa are owned by the private sector. The government may own substantial portions of the land but it has the enabled private organisations to invest here by giving them security of tenure.
This contributed to the availability of raw materials, which then catapulted the growth of the furniture industry.
Even with this, the industry is so large that it has necessitated the importation of raw materials from as far away as Uruguay, Vietnam and Venezuela.
The private sector and the government are engaged in discussions for additional land under forest, given the rising demand by the furniture industry.
What was jaw-dropping was that the primary raw material for the industry was Eucalyptus grandis and Eucalyptus saligna – more commonly what we refer to as blue gum in Kenya.
In Kenya, blue gum has been condemned as inferior timber. The logs are only used as electricity poles (though concrete is taking over) and fuel.
Kenyans are discouraged from planting these trees near river sources.
One of the industries we visited, which by far was not the largest, had an annual turnover of R4 billion (approximately $225 million) and whose ecosystem supported an entire town in employment.
Most of the furniture made in South Africa is exported to Europe and the United States, earning the country foreign exchange.
I would like to debunk local narratives on Eucalyptus. We have been told that it is an intensive species and that it needs a lot of water to grow. Water absorption by any tree species makes it denser. Eucalyptus is unique in the sense that its quick water absorption allows it to mature faster than traditional hardwoods.
Eucalyptus timber/fuel wood density is what contributes to its strength, making it perfect for electricity poles and fencing posts. Its high calorific value makes it an excellent fuel wood.
These are the traditional uses in Kenya. We have not even imagined what could happen if we put timber from this tree into our furniture industry, saving us money sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi for other hardwoods.
Commercial Forestry could have a huge impact on Kenya. All the ingredients for a sustainable commercial forestry exist. We have access to vast tracts of drylands, commonly referred to as Asal.
Kenya has specific tree types that can thrive in the drylands, including Mellia volkensii for marginal dry lands and Acacia tortillis and Acacia senegal for extreme arid regions.
Over the primary benefit of increased tree cover, which combats desertification, we have other advantages such as taking off pressure on state forests for timber, increased employment when putting these lands under trees, mitigation of severity of drought in desert areas with trees planted offering high energy quality pods for animals to feed on during drought season as well as carbon sequestration finance benefits.
This a perfect opportunity for the government and private sector to engage in a mutually beneficial discussion for the country.
Let us push back the desert whilst engaging in commercial forestry, creating employment, realising revenue and fighting climate change.
The writer is chairperson of the Timber, Wood and Furniture Sector at Kenya Association of Manufacturers ‘and is a retired banker.
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