Growth of forest plantations in Central Africa lags over financing constraints

Despite exciting opportunities and strong potentials, forest plantations occupy a very limited space in the sub-region, both in terms of area and production.
Acacia tree being planted in Yangambi – DR Congo. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

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The demand for wood, particularly in Africa where circa 80% of households depend on it for fuel, will inevitably snowball – expected to quadruple to an annual 6 billion m³ by 2050. In the face of this anticipated dramatic rise in the demand for wood resources, commercial forest plantations can play many of the same role as natural forests. But in Central Africa, despite exciting opportunities and strong potentials, forest plantations occupy a very limited space in terms of area and production, a new report has shown.

According to the report titled Congo Basin Forests – State of the Forests 2021 and produced by Central Africa Forest Observatory (OFAC), sluggish economic growth in the last 20 years has stalled investment in commercial forest plantations in the region. This is compounded by the difficulty in finding financing for business operations like forest plantations which do not quickly generate profits. It takes between 5 and 8 years to get a positive cash flow after investing in forest plantations.

In part of the report, the researchers suggest that banks may not be interested in financing the production side of forest plantations, but rather the downstream segments such as processing or value addition. To make matters worse, unsuitable industrial infrastructures, low productivity, inadequate technology and opacity in the land tenure and land use systems deter investment. Paul Bertaux and co-authors however indicate that through official development assistance, investments in the wood sector can be made for the creation of plantations, processing or forest exploitation.

As investment has been slow, so too has production and the area covered by forest plantations in Congo Basin countries remains small: Rwanda, 301,500 ha, Burundi, 146,000 ha, Congo, 74,500 ha, Gabon, 46,800 ha, Cameroon, 30,000 ha, DR Congo, 30,000 ha, and Equatorial Guinea 13 ha. Data was not available for Chad and Sao Tome & Principe.

In examining the trends of forest plantations in Central Africa, the development of eucalyptus plantations in Congo, which began in the 1950s to respond to the growing need of fuelwood in Pointe-Noire, came under focus. After several changes in shareholding, the government of Congo signed a long-term lease agreement with Congo Forest Plantations (COFOR), the Congolese subsidiary of French Forest Resources Management, over an area (Reforestation Perimeter of Madingo-Kayes) of nearly 38,000 ha, including 8,000 ha of eucalyptus plantation, 6,000 ha of extension areas, natural forests and protection areas.

The researchers however posit that despite the large areas planted and the high yields, over 20 m³ per ha each year, the nearness to Pointe-Noire port, amongst others, the forest plantations of Congo have not experience the boom akin to industrial successes recorded in South Africa and South America with equivalent technologies. They attribute this to several factors, notable amongst them lack of diversification and rising urbanization which breeds chronic illegal exploitation of nearly 10,000 ha.

Map showing the Bateke ecological corridor where the Mampu agroforestry system is being deployed. Credit: ERAIFT

The researchers also highlighted the Mampu agroforestry system combining Australian acacias (mangium et auriculiformis) and cassava which was developed on an 8,000-hectare surface in DR Congo between 1987 and 1993 under the supervision of Hanns Seidel Foundation. This project on the Bateke plateau was designed to cover the significant demand for charcoal in Kinshasa and to unleash its natural ability to enrich the soil and quality of wood. So far, at least 10,000 tons of charcoal from the sustainable plantations, 1,200 tons of maize, 2 tons of honey, large quantities of cassava and non-forest timber products are produced each year thanks to the Mampu project.

“Mampu’s agroforestry system has proven itself with 300 farming families each living on 25 hectares of acacia trees for some 20 years now, within a plantation perimeter welcoming several thousand people around a both residential and commercial centre,” a contributor to the report, Julius Chupezi Tieguhong, Chief Forestry Officer at AfDB’s African Natural Resources Centre, said.

Tieguhong said the management of the agroforestry system by the traditional practice of slash and burn which allows for natural regeneration of the acacia, is one of the success factors of the model. “This technique, known to farmers, facilitated the appropriation and therefore the sustainability of the agroforestry system.”

With regards to financing and investment options for establishing forest plantations, the researchers looked into three partnership models: public-private partnership, partnerships between the private sector and communities, and those between financial institutions and states. The researchers cited Gabon as a country where the PPP model has proven itself. Since 2011, Plantations Forestières de la Mvoum (PFM) has been working to develop an area of 40,000 ha granted by the government about 100 km from the Gabonese capital Libreville.

Mindful of the fact that demand for wood will increase, the researchers say plantations of fast-growing species could greatly contribute to the conservation and sustainable management of forest ecosystems and people’s livelihoods in Central Africa. They insist that as private companies manifest or materialise their interest in commercial forest plantations, the consideration of the needs of all stakeholders should beheld sacrosanct while environmental and social risk should be carefully weighed since such investments are made in complex and fragile environments.

Moreover, the researchers recommend that the choice of directors and staff, forestry or forest management techniques, plant material, land and marketing opportunities, mobilization of stakeholders, carbon impact and certification standard should also be considerd.

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