The World Bank predicts Africa’s population will triple by 2050, potentially experiencing the fastest urban growth globally. This means the need for housing is rising and more sustainable infrastructure in major cities and towns needs to be explored.
A collaborative team of environmental practitioners and business people from The Eco-Innovation Foundation, OKO Forests, SOZO Consulting, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) have come up with The Wood Solution—an industrial system in which climate positive urban development drives forest restoration and management through ensuring economic incentives for local people and communities.
Engaged in this year’s GLF Africa 2021, The Wood Solution team spoke to The Afrolutionist on timber-based urban construction, driving forest restoration, rural development, and building a Green Economy. The team includes Aaron Kaplan, Klas Bengtsson, Berty van Hensbergen and Lars Laestadius (Eco-Innovation Foundation), Kofi Debrah (OKO Forests), Amen Hultström (SOZO Consulting), and Rosa Goodman (SLU).
As The Wood Solution implies a new sustainable measure of industrial construction, but could it prove a threat to unsustainable practices (i.e., steel, concrete, and gravel industries)? How can value proposition be placed on large industrial actors (state and non-state) to ensure this transition, while retaining the promise of no job losses?
The building industry everywhere, including in Africa, needs to go through a sustainability transition in order to survive. This is a challenge but not a threat. On the contrary, the transition is a tremendous opportunity. The building industry needs to integrate a growing proportion of biomaterials. The Wood Solution implies using wood and other biomaterials where possible and can include steel and concrete where necessary. Each material needs to find its own optimal niche, which will change as resources, technology, and markets change.
We do not yet work specifically with steel or concrete industries, but we doubt that The Wood Solution will reduce jobs in the steel and concrete industries. If Africa were to build as much as it needs to deal with both legacy issues and new needs—which is a lot more than it builds today—then the market for steel and cement is unlikely to decrease in absolute terms. The growth in biomaterials will be additional to the consumption of steel and concrete. The addition of biomaterials will change some existing jobs while also adding many new jobs.
The building industry will have to learn how to use wood, something that requires new skills from everybody from construction workers to architects. New staff will need to be trained and some existing staff retrained. Authorities from the local to the state level need to work with the building industry to ease this transition.
New jobs will be created in the forestry and biomaterials industries. A large number of functions will need to be established or expanded, including in farm and forestry management (silviculture, stand management, seed collection, seedling production, planning, surveying, etc), in primary wood processing (logging and transportation), in secondary wood processing (sawmilling, transportation), in tertiary wood processing (manufacturing of components, transportation), and in by-products industries (biochar, etc). These jobs will cover a wide range of skills requiring different degrees of formal preparation. Most of them will be in rural areas and small towns.
It will be important to facilitate the training and re-training of workers and other staff, so that the building industry can go through this transition without undue friction.
Are there direct economic, social, and environmental incentives for the rural population? If so, how can this uptake be realized?
Absolutely! Providing genuine economic and social incentives for rural people to practice sustainable forest management and participate in an integrated and transparent timber value chain is the key to driving The Wood Solution at scale.
As tropical forestry is practiced today, there is very little incentive for rural populations. Trees are usually government property and are ‘sold’ to concession holders for a small fraction of the timber value. Trees are harvested and very often the logs are transported over long distances or even exported before any value adding activities. The so-called benefit sharing sees local populations receiving less than 5% of the log value. Employment for local populations is restricted to unskilled poorly paid work.
The Wood Solution sees a complete transformation of this system in which forest rights are transferred from central government to local landowners. This means that local landowners have full rights to benefit from the forest and will receive the full commercial value of the trees. Forest owners (individual or communal) can also choose who will carry out the forest work and this should lead to an increase in skilled forest employment. In addition, at least the primary processing is expected to take place very close to the forest creating local employment. It should be mentioned that governments stand to gain from this system as well, as tax revenues will be based on a new long-term growth sector with a much higher value recovery and value addition of the timber resource.
This will be accomplished by establishing a large number of small sawmills, located very close to the forest, and supplemented wherever possible with arrangements and equipment for making use of the by-products from the sawmill. We refer to these sawmills, including their side industries, as local bio-based industrial hubs or biohubs for short.
The larger biohubs will generate both biochar and electricity, which can be made available to the local population to improve both agriculture and lifestyles. Large biohubs may also have excess heat energy available that can be used for such things as food processing or for cooling.
The biohubs are the nexus of The Wood Solution. They are located in or near the local communities and comprise many steps of value addition. Run by local entrepreneurs, they will provide job opportunities while reaching and stimulating farmers to grow and manage trees. Funding for forest management activities at the local level will come from the sale of forest products into the building supply chain. However, technical support to ensure good forest management will be needed and may be provided either by forest authorities or by cooperatives of small forest owners and farmers.
Authorities can enable and stimulate bio-based rural industrialization through local biohubs by clarifying the tenure issues that pertain to trees, as described above. In many countries, forest regulations (often a colonial hangover) restrict forest management activities in such a way as to make sustainable forest management impossible and the trade in forest products unnecessarily difficult or unprofitable. Authorities should examine how it is possible to ensure sustainability within a far less prescriptive legal environment.
In your opinion, which countries have an enabling environmental, economic and political landscape to spread this innovative measure of construction?
Countries who are committed to reaching their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement and Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS) can view The Wood Solution as an additional tool and multi-win solution to meet their ambitious goals. One intention is to create carbon neutral affordable housing that acts as carbon sinks to meet the growing housing needs in the tropics. According to the World Bank, Nigeria needs a minimum of 17 million affordable housing units. If these homes are built with only concrete and steel then it would be hard for Nigeria to meet its NDCs. The Wood Solution creates new green jobs in forest management, wood processing, transportation, architecture & construction industries, biochar, and energy production. This opens up considerable financing opportunities for countries who are committed to reaching and surpassing their climate goals.
Countries who are working towards creating better enabling environments for smallholder farmers to thrive, countries who are proactively breaking down post-colonial extraction economy barriers that hinder the progress of rural communities. Ghana’s “One District, One Factory (1D1F)” is a great example of a policy that is driving economic growth and industrial development in rural as well as urban areas – the ID1F initiative helps to unlock much needed finance for job creating factories and industries. The Wood Solution fits well within this policy, particularly the ‘biohub’ element, which in essence are micro-sawmills close to the source of wood. The biohubs add value in the local area as opposed to the raw materials being exported and value added in a foreign land. Ethiopia is also making great progress to ensure agricultural growth, structural transformation, and economic development in the country by implementing accelerated agricultural financing such as the Rural Financial Intermediation Programme in collaboration with IFAD and the Agricultural Fast Track Fund in partnership with the African Development Bank. Other countries such as Kenya and Mozambique are also focusing on rural economic development with the acknowledgement that they need to close the rural infrastructure gap to achieve inclusive growth.
For more information on The Wood Solution and the team, visit their website here