With almost 14m ha of exploitable rainforest, 400 species of wood and one of the lowest levels of deforestation in the world, tropical rainforests are some of Gabon’s most abundant and promising resources. The forestry industry has traditionally been focused on raw timber exports, with over 60% of production going directly to markets in Europe and Asia. As part of its effort to diversify the economy and boost local industry, Gabon is working to maximise the value of its timber operations through investment in specialised processing capability and the minimisation of waste.

NEW DIRECTIONS: The transition to 100% local processing has been difficult for many companies, but the major players have invested heavily in processing plants that should help local industry to reach higher levels of quality and sophistication of products, as well as to maximise wood resources. The timber industry in the past has been limited to first- and second-stage processing, but companies are looking to develop new, higher-cost products to make up for losses in 2010-11. The state-owned forestry operator, Société Nationale des Bois du Gabon (SNBG), opened three facilities in the Owendo port zone in mid-2012 that have increased its capacity for second-stage wood processing. In addition to basic sawmill operations, SNBG will also produce plywood, thin wood panels and veneers for export.

Swiss Precious Woods also expanded the capacity of its hardwood sawing facilities in 2011, which has allowed the company to introduce products made of Omvong, Sorro or Eveuss and to expand its customer portfolio. Also in 2011, trials were carried out in sliced veneer processing using woods such as lomba, Faro, Tchitola and Aiélé, which represent potential alternatives to Okoumé. Although the latter is the dominant species in the local market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find high-quality Okoumé logs in Gabonese forests.

The government announced plans in June 2012 to establish two third-stage processing facilities in an effort to advance local capabilities beyond second-stage transformation. Some third-stage processing (including joinery and finished furniture for local commercialisation) exists in Gabon, but only in a individual and artisinal manner. A 2007 ministry census indicated there were 450 joiners operating in Gabon, roughly 60% of whom were foreign. The state plans to build two processing centres outside Libreville, accompanied by training seminars and business incubators.

BIG PLANS: The government hopes to boost the skill level and production in the sector, while also ensuring firms are following sustainable practices and minimising waste. However, given the scarcity of current third-stage processing operations, private sector partnerships will be crucial to development. The project is still in the conceptual phase, and the ministry is reaching out to private sector partners for all aspects, including topographical and architectural studies, site development and construction of the centres, equipment, as well as educational, technical and expertise partnerships.

Efforts to minimise wood waste from primary processing activities, such as chips, sawdust, slabs and offcuts, are also picking up. SNBG already turns waste from primary processing into power to support the operation of its processing plants. Olam announced that a 15-MW power plant is set for construction in the Nkok Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The plant will be fuelled by waste from timber processing facilities in order to provide power supply for businesses in the zone. Presently, first- and second-stage wood processing activities are planned in the Nkok SEZ, but Olam also will work with global firms to develop third-stage processing.

In addition, the Indian group Ellora Papermills has signed on to construct a paper pulp plant at Nkok. Derivative industries have been slow to take off given the low level of industrial activity, and the paper mill is a positive sign for the sector. In this sense, Nkok could be a catalyst for the development of high-level processing and derivative industries, by providing financial incentives, minimising transport logistics and encouraging the use of foreign workers for the transfer of specialised techniques currently not present in Gabon.