Neglect of a Goldmine

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Nigeria’s forestry industry, according to experts, has the potential to become a strong foreign exchange earner if government can tap into the opportunities therein. Ugo Aliogo reports

Before the oil boom of 1970, the Nigeria agriculture sector contributed a substantial share of the world’s cocoa, palm oil, groundnut, cotton, hides and skin, rubber and other solid minerals. The industry was one of the fast growing subsectors in the economy during that period. Export of wood products and agricultural commodities provided more than 70 percent of the country‘s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The exploitation of the wood resources impacted negatively on the growth of the industry.

Prior to I976, round wood exploitation for export was rife, and the high waste generated by the forest led to significant reduction in industrial round wood availability in the forest reserves. With an average recovery rate of between 45-55 percent, the waste generated in the sawmill industry in form of bark, sawdust, trimming, split wood, plank shavings and sanderdust in year 2010 alone was over 1,000,000m3.

The industry which is divided into formal and informal sectors, have witnessed serious irregularities dictated by sub-optimal deployment of raw materials. The formal sector include the organised wood based industries such as the pulp and paper mills, sawmills, plywood mills, particles board mills and furniture factories.

The informal enterprises are the small wood based enterprises operating without formal corporate entity and include enterprises that engaged in production of firewood, charcoal, chewing sticks, sculptured wood and in some cases, artisanal cabinet makers and lumber converters.
Research showed that in 2010, the number of sawmills in Nigeria stabilised at 1325.With an average recovery rate of between 45-55 percent, the waste generated in this subsector from end products such as bark, sawdust, trimming, split wood, planer shavings and sanderdust was over 1,000,000m3 in 2010. The sawmill accounts for a large volume of wood produced in Nigeria, statistics stated 93.32 percent.

In terms of wooden products demand internationally, Nigeria is lacking behind unlike her counterparts in the developed world. Our furniture products and raw wood are not exportable to Africa and the Europe market due to finishing and quality. Experts argued that one of the reasons responsible are the out-dated technologies used in wood processing, lack of government’s participation, low private sector investment.

They further argued that the energy sector is also contributing to the low productivity of the industry. Their argument is that there is low energy distribution to power industries with technological equipment in order to process high quality woods. Therefore, many industries depend on alternative power generation to process and this increases the cost of production and sales of their products. These twin challenges make it increasing difficult for Nigeria sawmills and wood industries to compete in the international market especially in the area of finished products.
Sadly, research has revealed that even household item such as the wooden matches are being imported from Malaysia, China and Indonesia. The continuous importation of this product is hampering the productive capacity of the local industries.

If Nigeria is to become a leading exporter of wood and furniture products, there is need for government to critically invest in the sector through intervention initiatives such as Public Private Partnership (PPP), drafting of a suitable policy framework, sectorial review and implementation of international best practices in the industry.

Okobaba sawmill is one of the biggest sawmills in Nigeria. With a production capacity of 600 cubic feet of woods during peak of high production, the sawmill contributes to 80-90 percent of woods used in Lagos State. It is located at the Lagos lagoon in Ebute-Metta. With genuine federal government involvement the sawmill has the potentials to produce large quantity of woods for the local and international market. This can help boost wood export to Asia and Europe.

The logs of timber sawed in the sawmill are transported through the water from hinterlands of Baysela, Rivers, Ondo and Delta States. It takes 3-12 months to arrive Lagos. The salted sea water ensures that it doesn’t rot away while been transported. There is a huge challenge carrying the woods from the hinterlands.

Tackling Workplace Risks
Yemi Debo was a timber merchant who eked out a living at Okobaba sawmill. According to colleagues, Debo was exceptional because of his zest for hardwork. But he had a very poor scorecard on workplace safety. His colleagues complained of his nonchalant attitude in handling electric wires, including unprotected wires.

“The guy was calling me, but I was confused on what to do and the operator switched off the buzz-saw. The operator confirmed that he was electrocuted and he died in my arms as he was being taking to the hospital,” noted a depressed Adebowale Samuel, owner of a zinc store.

The milling business is associated with a lot of risks, but if sufficiently managed, they can be averted. The machines used are powered with the aid of electricity therefore workers are expected to put on protective gloves and boots. But these measures are taken with levity and most times flaunted. These protective gloves help to minimise the risks of electrocution.

There is also the challenge of health hazards in the environment through the emission of dust into the air which can be inhaled by residents in the area. Medically, this could pose a challenge, but often times it is taken lightly and everyone seems to be less concerned.

However, saw millers said though they don’t have any record of it, but noted that it could be due to the continuous emission of saw dust into the air, which is being inhaled by the residents in the area. Like the saw millers, a source familiar with the operations at the sawmill, shared a similar view point. His stated that there company does not pose health challenges as alleged by Adebowale Samuel, owner of a zinc store. He explained that the few cases occurred as a result of industrial accidents as the saw dust are burnt at dumpsite.

Contributions to the Economy
Economically, the saw mill contributes 80-90 percent of timber used in the state. It was gathered that during the period of high production, they can produce 600 cubic feet of woods. Presently, the production is very low and output has dropped to 100 or 200 cubic feet daily. This is a paltry amount for an industry which if well supported by government, can become a viable revenue earner for the state.

In terms of revenue generation, the sawmill contributes to the revenue purse of the state through payment of taxes to various government agencies such as the Lagos State fire service, the state ministry of Agriculture, and other relevant bodies. Added to this, the sawmill generates employment opportunities for unemployed youths.

Like every formal organisation, the sawmill is an organised establishment with clearly defined structure and hierarchy. There are independent timber merchants who own sawing machines with apprentices working under them, but all independent operators are answerable to the union executives. The union stands as the established government and runs the affairs of the sawmill. The union executives interface on behalf of the saw millers to the state government.

The President Sawmillers Association of Nigeria (SAN) Lagos state chapter, Abdul Ganiyu Onikeku, said when an individual becomes a full fledged worker, it does not qualify an individual to own a sawmill. He explained that owning a sawmill requires huge financial investments. Onikeku added that before becoming a saw miller; the individual is expected to train for some years as a sawyer. This process involves buying timber and sawing the timber into planks for sale, and the monies realised at each sawing, can be saved to own a saw mill.

He further noted that owning a saw mill is the first stage, adding that the individual needs to buy machines that would saw the logs and pay the charges accrued in sawing the logs.
Onikeku added: “The amount of money needed to start the milling business is very huge, for instance N200, 000 for a start is small, but it can help to kick start the process. You will have to save towards earning more money. The more money you have determines your purchasing to buy logs and the higher your chances of getting more profits. For the various workers in the saw mill, they didn’t begin one day, they grew through the process of learning. Within six months and one year, you will become a full fletched master of where you are learning. Therefore, it is a gradual process. If you decide to work here, there are many things you have to learn first you have to begin from the level of apprentice.”

Shoddy Activities of Chain Saw Fellers
Like every other profession or trade that faces infiltration by quacks, there are people in timber business who engage in indiscriminate felling of woods thereby leading to deforestation.
The Secretary-General of SAN, Ikuejamoye Titus, said there are specified sizes for any roofing such as two by two, two by three, two by four and two by six, and the genuine chain sawyers have a gauge, but the shoddy chain sawyers don’t have a gauge, they saw a piece of wood that is supposed to be half inch to become one inch, therefore, they reduce the price of what they are selling in order to make it cheaper.

He stated that when they noticed these sharp practices, they bring them to the attention of Lagos state government, but nothing has been done to stem the tide of indiscriminate felling of trees.
He said: “Many of these timbers are purchased by housing developers to minimise cost. The woods we sawed here are of high standards and normal measurements. Many of the timbers that are felled down are not good for building houses because they are not matured enough; despite this unethical practice, people still prefer to use it because it is cheap. We have brought the issue to the ministry of agriculture in Lagos State, but they complained of sufficient manpower to monitor the activities of these individuals.”

Sectorial Performance
According to experts, the export revenue from forestry grew at 4.1, 8.0 and 28.8 percent between 1950-60, and 1960-70. Although, African sawn wood prices were under downward slide in late 2006, due to stable demand from India and China, the export value earnings from timber is obtained from products like log, sawn wood, veneer and pulp wood. Forestry sector provides employment opportunities for many Nigerians.

The estimates of people engaged in different types of forestry activities ranged from 170,000 in 1933, 360,000 in 1947 and 568,000 in 1961. These include management staff, and the labour force in all forest based industries. About 80 percent of the rural population of Nigeria is engaged in agro-forestry and other agro-allied activities.

A data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on the quarterly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which contained estimates for the four quarters of 2015, the annual figure for 2015 and estimates for the first, second, third and fourth quarters of 2016, revealed that the agriculture sector accounted for 88 percent in the fourth quarter and crop production.

The data also stated that in nominal terms, the sector grew by 6.45 percent year-on-year. This was lower than the growth rate recorded in the corresponding quarter of 2015, and also lower than that in the preceding quarter, by 3.05 percent points and 0.92 percent points respectively.
Growth in the sector was driven by output in crop production, which accounted for 87 percent of overall nominal growth of the sector. Agriculture contributed 21.26 percent to nominal GDP during the quarter under review. This was lower than shares recorded in the corresponding period of 2015 and the previous quarter at 22.56 percent and 24.09 percent.

It further explained that real agricultural GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2016 was 4.03 percent (year-on-year), which was an increase of 0.56 percent points compared to growth in the same quarter of 2015 of 3.48 percent. However, it was slightly less than the real growth rate of 4.54 percent recorded in the previous quarter. In contrast to the economy as a whole, for full year 2016, real GDP in agriculture grew by 4.11 percent and this growth rate was higher than that recorded in 2015 of 3.72 percent.

From the data above, it is obvious that no attention was paid to the forestry industry as a result the subsector has been lagging behind in terms of contribution to the GDP. The likelihood of this is government may not be able to tap into the opportunities in the sector in order to boost growth.