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Emergence journal: the timber sector in Gabon

Since 2009 and when Ali Bongo Ondimba came to power, the timber sector has been thriving and has pride of place in the industrial landscape of Gabon. A change in regulations, the setting up of numerous training courses… the sector is a perfect example that shows the path to be followed to achieve the country's emergence by 2025.

More than three years ago, Ali Bongo Ondimba asserted his determination to engineer change in the national economy. And in particular concerning the timber sector. The wager has been won. 
A little background… 
Since the country's independence in 1960, timber has been one of the strategic sectors on which the economy can lean. Gabon has exceptional forest coverage. 22 million hectares and almost 90% of this area can be exploited. The country quickly opened up internationally and commercialised the export of lumber, to Asia and Europe in particular.
In 2001, Omar Bongo wanted to speed up the industrialisation of the sector and implement a sustainable development policy. He drew up a Forestry Code fixing precise objectives, in particular that of achieving a domestic transformation rate of 75% by 2012. But things did not go according to plan and the global economic crisis in 2008 had a direct impact on the sector, leading to a sharp decline in sales. In 2009, Ali Bongo Ondimba came to power and noted that the 2012 objective could never be reached with only 25% to 35% of logs being transformed. On 5 November 2009, he took a historical and courageous decision: to purely and simply ban the export of raw logs. So that existing companies would not be sanctioned, the State granted 4 months notice to sell their stocks from 2009.
The decision to ban the export of raw logs was taken to favour in depth the local transformation of lumber and especially to allow the country to create large numbers of qualified jobs to boost the domestic economy. For an optimum launch to this conversion of the sector, the State decided to set up a Timber Industry Bureau, an administrative body in charge of promoting the industrialisation of the forestry sector, but also providing training for the industrial operators.
Key dates:
  • November 2009: The Council of Ministers votes to ban the export of logs. 
  • May 2010: Gabon's foresters can no longer officially export raw logs
  • January 2012: The national timber company SNBG (Société Nationale des Bois du Gabon) – obtains a loan of 8 billion CFA francs from the Central African States Development Bank (BDEAC) for the construction of the industrial complex for wood processing at Owendo. (Gabon)
  • June 2012: The government creates the executive agency for the timber sector which sets up a legality grid and helps to draw up a list of operators.
  • October 2012: The Special Economic Zone of Nkok, destined, in particular, to promote the production and transformation of wood in the country, announces the presence of 62 investors. 80% of the zone is already occupied
  • 2020: Gabon becomes the world leader in certified tropical wood?
Figures that show the challenges
The sector is incontrovertibly emblematic in Gabon. A demonstration in figures:
  • 80% of Gabon's land mass is covered in forest, representing approximately 22 million hectares. To date, the timber sector is the second largest sector for jobs
  • At a worldwide level, Gabon supplies 8% of timber
  • In the country, 80 different species of tree are exploited, including okoumé, zygo and iroko.
The first effects of the ban on log exports
Over the past three years, the landscape of the timber sector has already changed. The work done by the government and by local companies has paid off. The number of plants has, for example, greatly increased. In 2009, the country had 81 factories; in 2012, there are 114 factories devoted to timber. This, of course, has repercussions at the level of jobs: in 2009, the sector employed 4,000 people; in 2012, it generated 7,000 jobs.
In addition, the increasing rise in the number of companies in the sector has enabled an increase in the volume of wood exploited: in 2009, the country exploited 1,180,000 m3 of logs; in 2012, the volume reached 1,600,000 m3. Europe is the main beneficiary of Gabonese timber products. 42% are sold to countries in the EU, 36% are exported to Asia and 22% to Africa/America. Lastly, a figure that shows how effective Ali Bongo Ondimba's decision was is that of the timber sector's share of gross domestic product (GDP) which rose from 4.5% to 8% in 2011.
Positive results since the end of log exports: 
  • 3.5… the rise in the timber sector's share in GDP between 2009 and 2011
  • 31… the number of plants built and in operation since 2009
  • 71… the percentage increase in exports originating from the transformation of wood
  • 3,000… the number of jobs created in the timber sector in 3 years
  • 420,000… the increase, in m3, in the volume of wood exploited in the country in 3 years
Analysis… Understanding the stages in the transformation of wood 
From now on, companies in the timber sector carry out at least one transformation on domestic soil. There are three major stages of transformation: the first concerns the sawing of wood; the second increases the added value of the wood (panels, mouldings, planed and profiled products and wooden flooring). The third stage goes even further (finished products and composites of carpentry and cabinet-making). Today, a Gabonese company can therefore take charge of each stage. For a better understanding, here are the details of the first stage of transformation:
1. The tree trunks, trimmed to form blocks, are placed on the saw bench
2. Hard woods are kiln dried for four days
3. During this time, the waste wood is recycled as wood for heating to feed the plant boiler
4. Then, the blocks of wood are planed to prepare them for cutting
5. The wood is cut after verification of its quality by means of a monitoring sheet
6. Veneer is manufactured at a maximum speed of 110 cuts per minute
7. Then the veneer is placed in the dryer to remove as much humidity as possible
8. The veneer is checked to remove all defects
9. The defects are cut out to produce veneer of impeccable quality
10. The veneers are stacked into piles
11. The operator calculates the surface area of veneer produced for each pile
12. Lastly, the piles of veneer are identified (traceability) prior to storage
The guarantees of proper exploitation of Gabonese timber
To avoid excessive or illegal forest clearance and make sure all the stages in the transformation of the wood are respected, there are several guarantees that ensure dependable exploitation. Traceability is essential: the aim is to follow the movements of the forestry product from the forest to the place of export.
  • The FSC label: this universally recognised international standard ensures that the wood was sourced from a sustainably managed environment
  • The grid of legality created by the timber sector executive agency: makes it possible to understand how the company works, how the forest is exploited and check whether the product manufacture was compliant with the regulations in force
  • The Forestry Code: this statute comprises all of the legal provisions applicable to the Water and Forestry sector. It stipulates the conditions of sustainable management in order to increase its contribution to the country's economic, social, cultural and scientific development
Thanks to these guarantees, Gabon fully meets the criteria set by the European Union starting from March 2013. These criteria require that all imported wood should carry a legality and traceability grid.
Key dates in forestry in Gabon: 
  • December 2001: The Forestry Code enacted to supervise forest management 
  • August 2002: The President creates 13 national parks in one fell swoop
  • September 2010: FSC international certification is used to place Gabon's forest under sustainable management
  • June 2012: The government creates the executive agency for the timber sector which sets up a legality grid and helps to draw up a list of operators.
  • October 2012: Gabon becomes a centre of excellence in the field of the transformation of wood in the Congo basin
Focus… Examples of innovative timber exploitation: Nkok Special Economic Zone and SNBG
The Nkok multiple-sector Special Economic Zone is a flagship project in central Africa. Situated 27 kilometres east of Libreville, this zone – which became operational in March 2011 – has the primary vocation of promoting the production and the transformation of wood in the country. To date, of the 62 investors in the Economic Zone, 40% work in the timber sector. The first timber transformation plant is already up and running.
In Owendo, the SNBG (Société Nationale des Bois du Gabon) is working at full capacity. Since the end of exports, SNBG has devised a plan to industrialise its production. This ambitious project has attracted large numbers of outside investors. In 2012, the capital of the company was increased from 4 to 10 billion CFA francs. It will now be possible to take charge of all the stages of transformation, from cutting to sawing, including veneer production, in Gabon.
Training for tomorrow in timber sector occupations: Booué training school
The construction of Booué training school is an ambitious project. For a global cost of 17 billion CFA francs, the 8-hectare complex will open in 2014 to train high level engineers who will oversee all the stages in the transformation of timber. The occupations – maintenance operatives, mechanics and sales agents – will be promoted. Research will also be given its place.
The trainers are also trained to be able to provide high quality teaching. To do so, they went on a placement to the very famous University of Applied Science in Bern, Switzerland. This opportunity followed on from the signing of two conventions at the end of 2010 establishing close cooperation between Gabon and Switzerland in the field of training and the industrialisation of the timber sector in Gabon.
Major projects, present and future: 
  • July 2010: Creation of the Nkok Special Economic Zone
  • December 2011: Mévang sawmill doubles its production capacity
  • January 2012: SNBG obtains a loan of 8 billion of CFA francs to finance the construction of the Owendo complex.
  • 2014 : Opening of the Booué School specialising in wood-related occupations
Practical information
For those of you who wish to seek a career in the wood industry, here is a list of secondary schools, occupations and training courses: 
  • Lycée Technique Omar Bongo: Brevet des techniciens in wood structures, carpentry and cabinet-making; BAC F1D in wood and related materials
  • Lycée technique de Tchibanga: Vocational diploma (BEP) in Carpentry and Cabinet-making
  • Lycée technique d’Oyem: Vocational diploma (BEP) in Carpentry and Cabinet-making
  • Lycée technique de Fougamou: Carpentry and Cabinet-making
  • Vocational training centre of Libreville, Tchibanga, Makokou, Franceville and Koulamoutou: Training in barrel-making
  • Owendo Technology Institute: Diploma (DTS) in Wood and Habitat Consulting.
For professionals, here is a list of contacts of the companies working with the Ministry of Vocational Training:
  • Creation Nouvelle: Mr Onbouma Fabian - 07 61 80 83
  • Idéé 2000: 01 72 27 35
  • Socoba: 01 70 05 01
  • Ecowood: Mr Hans Fahrni - 06 76 09 50
  • Socofi: Mr Thierry Kamel - 07 89 22 28
  • MBA: 01 74 67 67 - Sobamiga: Mr Mouele Cyril - 07 94 11 04
  • Cim BTP: 01 72 15 18
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