By Faith Atieno

Despite forests being a highly valued asset in Kenya, the growing wood supply-demand deficit that undermines conservation and economic development targets pose a serious challenge, according to Jack Steege, Program Director at Gatsby Africa.

“This widening deficit is driving an increase of biomass fuel prices impacting households and high employment industries thus challenging the economy,” Steege said during the first Kenya Commercial Forestry Investment Conference and Expo.

According to estimates from the PwC report, based on data from Kenya Forest Services-KFS and United Nations Environmental Program-UNEP, the national wood supply-demand deficit currently stands at approximately 20 million cubic meters which is still rising.

Jack Steege giving a presentation at the conference

He highlighted the potential of the heat intensive industries to grow 3 times by 2045 on a diminishing biomass fuel resource base, adding that the country will need to balance demands of industry with sustainable and cost effective biomass fuel supply to secure key export sectors such as tea.

The challenge therefore, is partly to meet this deficit through imports which drives deforestation in other countries, Steege said. The deficit is mostly met by unsustainable timber from Central Africa hence, driving negative climate and biodiversity.

The program director said reliance on importation of unsustainable tropical timber is not compatible with global climate agreements and presents risks to down-stream the industry.

According to Steege, if humanity has any possibility of making it within the balance of survivable climate change we have no choice but to preserve the trees and the tropical forests-this will ensure climate catastrophe is avoided.

To counter this challenge, he said, Kenya has a number of land use restoration opportunities intended to result in the 10 percent forest cover requirement for example, commercial tree and bamboo plantations that is, commercial forestry as well as rehabilitation of degraded natural forests.

Commercial tree growing at all scales will be critical in addressing the tension between the forest cover target and national wood deficit realities, Steege said, adding that to meet the national restoration targets as well as climate commitments through commercial forestry, significant private sector financing is required.

This mitigation however faces some limitations such as a number of investments being underperformed due to the fact that growers can’t access the target markets-a threat to the future flow of the private finance at the scale required.

Jack Steege at the conference giving a presentation

It’s unfortunate that Kenya’s planted forest area has remained static since 1990 at around 153000 ha because principles along the value chain-activities involved bringing timber/non-timber products from the trees, through processing, delivery to consumers and ultimately disposal, haven’t been met nor has there been sufficient enabling policy, legislation and regulations- this is according to the headline trends of FAO 2020.

As the government, through the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, lays out these restoration opportunities, focus should be to ensure sufficient policies to enable a conducive environment for investors, he said.

Unlocking the sector’s potential

Steege mentioned that Gatsby has worked with Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) to come up with some geospatial and site species matching tool which is enhanced by KEFRI App and aims to support the app beyond Kenya into other countries like Uganda, adding “you create problems when you target the wrong environment.”

Moreover, seed source and the significance of tree breeding shouldn’t be underestimated as the use of improved/genetic material targeting end market opportunities will ultimately improve economic performance across the value chain, he added.

Plant quality is also an approach toward unlocking the sector’s potential as stated by the program director. High quality seedling production enhances survival rate and tree growing performance.

In collaboration with KEFRI, Gatsby Africa is looking at some research and opportunities and revenue from the private sector department to prove it’s possible to have world class seedling production and commercial sale at cost effective prices.

Besides, there’s also the idea of silviculture- the growing and cultivation of trees to meet values and needs, specifically timber production.

According to Steege, silvicultural standards and group scheme arrangements can ensure efficiencies in plantation development and future market places

Kenya has a fragmented landscape but also the existence of a number of Tree Growers Associations. The significance of these association group scheme arrangements, as Steege put it, can effectively bring growers under one management regime that ensures efficiency in plantation development and future market access.

Julius Kamau, Chief Conservator of Forests, KFS, supported the silvicultural idea claiming that it’s a paradigm shift in envisioning the future in the management of public commercial forest plantation.

Growth of a competitive and inclusive commercial forestry sector is central to realizing Kenya’s environmental, social and economic agenda and private sector co-financing has a vital role to play if the country is to meet its target-hence, providing a conducive environment with favourable investment policies is paramount.