Uses of trees and forests in Africa

5 sep 2014

Most of the forest functions are provided by Africa’s dry forests.
Apart from the provision of wood and non-wood products, forest land itself has many uses, not least for environmental and ecosystem services, but also as a land reserve for agricultural and infrastructure expansion.


Wood removals are used for fuelwood and charcoal production

It is essential for the understanding of the “forest sector” in Africa to realise that 90%, or 615 million m³ annually, of all wood removals from forests, woodlands, trees outside forest and trees on farms are still used for fuelwood and charcoal production. It is estimated that 82% of household energy in Africa is derived from wood. In particular, the charcoal market makes up a very large part of the informal economy in many African countries – a WB study[1] concluded that the charcoal business in Tanzania alone was worth USD 650 million annually, creating 2 million full- or part-time jobs, neither of which ends up in official GDP or employment statistics.


The formal forest industry is small

This should be compared to the officially reported 72 million m³ of wood removed as industrial timber from the whole continent, i.e. roughly the same volume as harvested annually in Sweden alone. The figure, however, is probably a substantial underestimate in view of the large-scale illegal felling and trade of timber that is reported from many countries – it was, for example, recently reported[2] that almost half of the timber (c. 200 000 m³) exported from Mozambique to China was illegally felled. The formal forest industry is small – only South Africa has a significant, plantation-based mechanical wood and pulp/paper industry. In parts of West and Central Africa there are some medium-sized sawmills and other mechanical wood industries based on raw material from rain forest logging concessions and, much less, from plantations. Likewise, there is a limited sawmilling and board industry in East and Sothern Africa, based on raw material supply from, normally, Government plantations.


Substantial informal tree and wood products activities

Again, there is also substantial informal secondary and tertiary tree and wood products activities, e.g. in the chainsaw milling and pit-sawing, building material (scaffolding), furniture, wood carvings, and other sectors. Actually, the main sources of forest based employment and economic activities in most countries are found in these informal and domestic sectors. It is estimated by FAO that c. half a million people are directly employed in primary wood production alone.


The value of non-timber forest products

The value of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), i.e. food, fodder, medicines, gums and resins, etc., is even more difficult to get reliable figures on, more than the fact that in large parts of Africa such NTFPs constitute a major source of nutrition and income for, particularly, rural people[3]. A very coarse and unreliable estimate put the annual value of trade in NTFPs in Africa at USD 500 million, which undoubtedly is a gross underestimate.


The use of the forest land itself

Apart from the provision of wood and non-wood products, forest land itself has many, essential and varied uses, not least for environmental and ecosystem services, but also as a land reserve for agricultural and infrastructure expansion. Some of the crucially important functions of forest ecosystems and trees in landscapes in Africa include: harbouring and protection of a rich biodiversity, which in turn is the basis for a flourishing tourism industry; serving as an essential hydrologic regulator through its watershed functions; enhancing agricultural soil fertility (through “fertiliser trees” in agroforestry systems and as fallows); and as carbon sinks. It is highly encouraging to note that not less than 55 million ha of forests and woodlands were designated primarily for biodiversity conservation (national parks, game reserves, etc.) in 2010 and c. 20 million ha for protection of soil and water resources.


Africa’s forests contribute to one fifth of total global carbonstock

Africa’s forests contribute 21% of total global carbon stock held in forest biomass. The potential of using trees for soil fertility enhancement and agricultural productivity increases through landscape restoration approaches has been shown to be substantial. In Niger, for example, a “re-greening” campaign of planting trees on 5 million ha of degraded land led to a doubling of agricultural yields and the N-fertiliser equivalent of the trees’ impact was estimated at a value of USD 500 million.


Most of these functions are provided by Africa’s dry forests

It is worth noting that most of these productive and service functions are provided by Africa’s dry forests and woodlands, and not, as is sometimes believed, by the closed rainforests. This is in part because they cover a larger area, but mainly because the agro-ecological zone they occur in harbour a much larger part of Africa’s population – more than 500 million against just around 80 million in the Congo Basin area[4]. This in turn depends on the fact that the semi-arid to sub-humid zones of Africa have much higher agricultural and livestock production potentials than the humid rainforest zone.

Share Dr. Björn Lundgren experiences

This is the second article in a serie of articles were Dr. Björn Lundgren share his experiences from Africa. Within the coming weeks several articles will be published about e.g. policy processes, trends, potential roles of forests and trees in Africa to address challenges and potentials.


Author: Dr. Björn Lundgren, Editor: Dr. fredrik Ingemarson

Photo from Ethiopia: Pia Barklund


[1]World Bank, 2009. Environmental crisis or sustainable development opportunity. Transforming the charcoal sector in Tanzania. A policy note. World Bank, Washington D.C.

[2]EIA, 2013. First Class Connections. Log smuggling, illegal logging and corruption in Mozambique. The Environmental Investigation Agency, London and Washington D.C.

[3]Agustino, S., B. Mataya, K. Senelwa and E.G. Achigan-Dako, 2011. Non-wood forest products and services for socio-economic development. A compendium for technical and professional forestry education. 219 pp. African Forest Forum, Nairobi.

[4]Chidumayo, E.N., 2004. Key external underlying threats to dry forests of sub-Saharan Africa. A case study of urbanization and climate change. Unpublished report for CIFOR. Lusaka, Zambia 43 pp.

[5]Nair, C.T.S. and J. Tieguhong, 2004. African forests and forestry: an overview. AFORNET/FAO/KSLA, Nairobi. 27 pp.