January 5, 2022
4 Min. Read

Our forest, our future

What wood can do: 1 million jobs for Tanzania, super homes for Zanzibar

Wood needs a lobby. Especially in Zanzibar and Tanzania. Katrin Dietzold travelled to Iringa and went deep into the forest to look for clues.

Forest - everyone associates it with deep emotions. With flavours, freshness, sounds. I myself am an admirer of the forest. But this article is about another dimension. About forests as a resource. A plantation forest binds 15 times more carbon dioxide per year than a natural forest. Forests instead of cement factories and steelwork are the magic equation for the future. 

In the midst of a worldwide debate about saving forests, my husband Sebastian and I recently stood on a hill in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania looking at seemingly endless 250,000 hectares of planted eucalyptus and pine trees - an area double the size of New York, equivalent to 35,000 football fields. We had travelled to the north to see for ourselves if forestry and professional wood processing is possible in Tanzania, and if it already exists here. 

Since the climate conference in Glasgow, saving forests is high on the agenda. Brazil is considered one of the bad guys, burning down far too many trees. But among the things we learnt in Iringa is, that contrary to large wood exporting nations such as Brazil, “Tanzania has been successful in planting thousands of hectares with plantation forests where it’s needed, on degraded farmland”, says Hans Lemm, an agroforestry entrepreneur whom we met in Iringa. And that is just the beginning. In other words, Tanzania could be among the good guys in the climate crusade. But at the moment it still needs to import wood.

Hot business for investors

With CPS, our company developing Fumba Town in Zanzibar, we have been using timber construction technology for years. We have built more than hundred wooden family homes in Fumba and are currently constructing over 250 holiday apartments called “The Soul” with this technology in Paje at Zanzibar’s east coast. 

The Tanzanian government – theoretically – is betting on wood and agroforestry, too, since an official “development framework” projected huge possible benefits and profits through agroforestry here until 2032. “Tanzania could create one million jobs, feed its own domestic market, export plywood and other engineered wood products to several countries in East Africa, South Africa, even the Emirates and India“, says the study conducted by the Tanzania National Business council (TNBC).

While we are standing with Hans Lemm on the ridge in Iringa, taking in the splendid forest view, the Dutch-born top manager starts to talk. He is CEO of East Africa's largest forest development and wood processing company “Green Resources AS”. “Potentially”, Lemm agrees, forests could be “a huge and sustainable business in Tanzania.” But for now it’s kind of a catch-22 situation where high demand to develop the industry is missing. But even if there were sufficient demand, a slack industry, strangled by bureaucracy, couldn’t fulfil it. Just as the classic catch 22, actually: To get a certain job, you need work experience. But to get that work experience, you need to have a job. 

Moving up the quality ladder 

So there's lots to do, and the details have to be right. Eucalyptus is often seen critical by environmentalists because it sucks a lot of water from the ground, but Lemm maintains it’s a question of managing and replanting the trees. “The quality of Tanzanian eucalyptus and pine wood is very good”, he assures us, “as long as the trees are treated properly, from planting to thinning, pruning and harvesting.” His company Sao Hill is the first and only in the country operating a professional wood treatment and drying facility. 

Compared with pioneering Lemm, the picture of state forests and agroforestry is wanting,to  say the least.Over-aged and poorly managed the plantations, nom-existing any modern wood processing plants. Twenty already operating factories do employ 140,000 people but “produce low value, low quality, and relatively low-priced products. Yet, there is a desire to move up the quality ladder“, says the Tanzania Business council. Currently five (!) ministries are involved in facilitating, coordinating and mobilising resources in the wood sector in Tanzania. 

Get your prefab wood home in Fumba

We realise, there is still a long way to go before wood and industrial wood products from Tanzania could really cater to a mass market.  Then again, this is exactly where we as urban developers feel called upon to do our part! As CPS we develop and design thousands of apartments and buildings. We have gained plenty of experience in wood construction with “VolksHouse Limited'' in Fumba, the first in Tanzania to produce prefabricated wood houses with fast and precise, easily multiplied building techniques. We have created over 80 jobs with this factory. For Fumba Town and other projects alone we have a demand of more than 30,000 cubic meters of processed wood per year. 

It’s about time to reset the political course. Our visit to the Southern Highlands has convinced us once more: Wood made in Tanzania has a future.

The wood wizard

Hans Lemm is Tanzania’s best wood maker.

When Hans Lemm’s company started planting forests in Tanzania in the late 1990s, great importance was placed to maintain the remnants of the original landscape in the valleys, where rivers meander untouched, whilst row upon row of trees were planted on the mountains. "Basically, forest areas are fields with crops. The only difference is that they don’t give an annual harvest but only every ten to 15 years," explains the Dutch-born CEO of East Africa's largest forest development and wood processing company “Green Resources AS”. His plantations near Iringa are twice the size of New York. The company operates its own sawmill, Sao Hill Industries, and a huge tree nursery which produces annually two million eucalyptus and pine seedlings to replant about 1,800 hectares of harvested forests. Then the cycle starts all over again: The new eucalyptus can be harvested in 10-15 years, the pine trees after eight years.

Why (not only) Zanzibar needs to built on wood:

  • Sand for construction has become a scarce resource 
  • Steel and cement prices are constantly rising 
  • The worldwide building sector is a climate killer, responsible for 25 per cent of  CO2 emission
  • Wood is climate-friendly - every cubic meter binds half a ton of carbon
  • Tanzania is blessed with geographical and climatic conditions to make agroforestry an attractive business
  • Wooden houses are cool, they hardly store any heat. Ventilate once and sleep in a cool place! 

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