Uganda scarcity of timber affects furniture makers

Peter Sebulinde, a carpenter in Mukono town about 20 km along the busy Kampala-Jinja highway has been dealing in furniture for over ten years, but admits that the current scarcity of timber is nearly driving him out of business.

"I'm now producing furniture on order, unlike in the past where I could manufacture and display the products for customers to come and buy. I now get very few customers and those who come to buy pay in instalments as they cannot afford to pay at once," he laments during an interview at his carpentry workshop.

He says timber these days is very scarce and expensive, citing hardwood like mahogany which is ideal for manufacturing furniture but cannot be easily got in the country. That which is available is being imported from the DR Congo and unaffordable by many carpenters who are engaged in the furniture business.

His workshop produces various types of furniture including dining sets, door and window frames, desks, beds, sofa sets and other products.

Mr Sebulinde says a piece of mahogany 12 x 1 x 14 costs about 60,000 shillings while a similar piece of Cyprus, a softwood costs 40,000 shillings - this explains why a nice sofa set can cost up to five million shillings and this is often beyond the means of ordinary Ugandans.

"Natural forests where we used to harvest timber are almost finished, leading to scarcity of wood… this has made our business bad. You must have a lot of capital for you to survive in the business."

"The timber scarcity is so bad that people have resorted to using even jackfruit wood for door frames and roofing their houses with something that was unheard of in the past.”

"The growth of the economy has seen a dramatic increase in construction of residential, commercial and institutional buildings leading to a high demand for wood products," he said adding that since the majority of Ugandans use biomass for cooking, this has also worsened the situation.

Some big companies like ROKO are also involved in the manufacture of good quality furniture but the prices are so high that their products are for wealthier Ugandans.

Dealers says some furniture is imported into the country from China and Japan and that although it looks very attractive because of the finishing, it doesn’t last as long. If they could afford to buy quality machines, they could also produce quality work which can favourably compete with imported furniture.

A recent official State of Environment report on Uganda warns that the forest estate in Uganda is under tremendous pressure from commercial, poverty-induced and industrial demand which has contributed to a decline in the quality and extent of the resource.

"Uganda has an unsustainable rate of consumption of its forest due to the high rates of deforestation and harvesting. The combined effects of deforestation, shrinking forest stock and high consumption are resulting in an escalating problem which should be of national concern.”

However, it notes that the reduced supply of wood would eventually lead to increases in prices and should have a modifying effect on consumption thus encouraging increased investment in forestry.

"Higher levels of investment are required for increasing Uganda's forest cover and the National Forest Authority (NFA) has embarked on attracting private capital into the forestry sub-sector. All indications are that demand for timber will continue to grow and existing plantations are nearly finished," it states.

The report says that with Uganda's rapidly growing population and fast developing economy, there will undoubtedly be an excellent market for good general-purpose timber and also good markets for peeler (veneer) logs and transmission poles which are being imported.

It points out that similar to wood products, there is already a noticeable scarcity of some non-wood forest product citing rattan, the material which used to be readily available in the natural forests but current rattan furniture makers in Kampala have to import the raw material from DR Congo.

Geoffrey Muleme

Alain Charles Publishing, University House, 11-13 Lower Grosvenor Place, London, SW1W 0EX, UK
T: +44 20 7834 7676, F: +44 20 7973 0076, W: www.alaincharles.com

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