Turning To Secondary Timber Species

With production activities of the wooden furniture industries continuously hindered by the decline in the supply of raw materials, secondary timber species with similar properties can provide the solution. Charles Antwi-Boasiakoand KwadwoBoakyeBoadu, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

 

Production activities of the wooden furniture industries continuously get hindered by the decline in the supply of raw materials. Increasing scarcity of preferred (especially the traditional/primary) timber species limits the output and growth of the timber companies globally. 

 

For instance, supply ofHeveabrasiliensis (rubberwood), a major timber for furniture production in Malaysia, decreased from 489,378 cubic metres in 2001 to 91,605 cubic metres in 2008 due to overexploitation. 

 

Consequently, Sarawak, a leading furniture producer contributed less than 0.5 percent of Malaysia’s furniture export. It was reported that sustainability of Thailand’s furniture industry continues to face serious risk because deforestation has reduced the country’s forest cover from 53 percent to 28 percent of the total land area between 1961 and 1998. A further reduction to 24 percent was anticipated by 2010. 

 

Currently, wooden furniture is giving way to the metal type in Taiwan, one of the world’s largest furniture producing countries, due primarily to wood raw material shortage.The impacts of timber shortage on furniture industries in these countries are not different from those experienced in other parts of the world. 

 

A study noted that many companies in Accra and Kumasi have folded up because the traditional timbers for furniture are not available, while a few are very expensive to acquire.

 

Another study reported that about 78 percent of wooden furniture on the national market is imported from Asia, Italy and South Africa partly due to a reduction in the processing capacities of the local industries from timber shortage. 

 

Importation of wooden furniture increased by about 400 percent between 2005 and 2011. This has led to a decline in the contribution of the wood industry to the national economy. For instance, the nation’s timber industry’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) dropped from 4.1 percent in 2006 to 3.7 percent in 2010. The decline was attributed to poor performance of the industry on the export market due to operational challenges such as reduced supply of wood raw material.

 

Timber importation is one attempt at solving the challenge of inadequate raw material supply. In 2012, 66 percent of wood used for furniture production by Vietnam was imported from the US. Logging ban placed by the Chinese Government on natural forests due to shortage of domestic timber supply has resulted in a surge in the amount of timber imported into the country, which is estimated at 70 percent of China’s total timber consumption. 

 

Similarly, Ghana imports timber from neighbouring countries including Cameroon to augment the local supply. However, continuous importation of wood increases the cost of operation and furniture products, which subsequently slows the growth of the local industries. China’s continuous dependence on imported timber is a source of industry insecurity. 

 

Some researchers have mentioned that the introduction of lesser utilised timber species (LUS) with known properties on the market is one of the best strategies that would widen the raw material base and ensure continuous supply of timber resources for furniture production. 

 

LUS are available in great quantities in many sustainably managed tropical forests and are likely to obtain legality assurance certificate for exploitation. The cost of secondary timber species is generally low due to their abundance. 

 

For instance, whileLoxopterygiumsagotii, a popular traditional species for furniture in Guyana, was sold for about $250/Bm, Hymenolobiumflavum, a LUS with similar properties and utilisation potential as L sagotii was sold for $180/Bm. 

 

In the US, previously underutilised species such as Alnusrubra Bong are making substantial contributions to the growth of the furniture sub-sector. Manufacturers in Malaysia have accepted alternatives such as Dipterocarpusconfertus v Sloot,Pseudolachnostylismaprounaefolia Pax, Shorea spp and Koompassiamalaccensis Maingay ex Benth, which have similar properties as rubberwood. 

 

In Ghana, several LUS (such as Klainedoxagabonensis Pierre ex Engl, Celtis spp,Borassusaethiopum Mart, Strombosiaglaucescens Engl, Pycnanthusangolensis (Welw) Warb, Canariumschweinfurthii Engl. and Azadirachtaindica AdrJuss) that have the potential to substitute the scarce traditional timbers for furniture production have been investigated. 

 

However, there is still high uncertainty about the survival of the industry due largely to persistent wood shortage. It is, therefore, unclear the extent to which manufacturers utilize LUS as alternatives to the dwindling primary timbers. 

 

Size of Firms

The Ghanaian wooden furniture industry is steadily declining in performance, productivity and profits due to lack of raw materials, skilled labour, competition brought about by trade liberalisation and high operational costs. 

 

These challenges are more pronounced among the large scale companies. Many Ghanaian large-scale firms have shut down due to increasing costs of operations. A few of those remaining have reduced their production capacities drastically due to raw material shortage. It was, therefore, not surprising to find more small- (70 percent) and medium-scale (25 percent) furniture firms than the large type (5 percent). 

 

Small- and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) are recognised as catalysts for sustainable development of many countries. They provide about 50 percent of all jobs in Nigeria and make up about 70 percent of all industrial establishments and 90 percent of all businesses in Ghana. 

 

Ghanaian SMEs employ 60 percent of the labour force, contribute about 22 percent to the GDP and support the development of indigenous entrepreneurship. A major bottleneck to the survival of small-, medium- and large-scale industries in the forestry sub-sector is the limited supply of timber materials. 

 

Policies aimed at boosting innovation and increasing the availability of raw materials would promote the competitiveness and growth of these firms. In order to increase the raw material base for furniture product manufacturing, an increase in the use of LUS to supplement the supply of primary timbers need encouraged. This would preserve firms, keep the sector operational and prevent job losses.

 

Furniture Products Manufacturing

Most of the manufacturers (33 percent) engaged in the production of office chairs, tables as well as bedroom furniture. Centre for Industrial Studies observed a faster growth in the office trade on the European market. 

 

The emergence of new businesses and expansion of existing ones have led to the growth in trade of office chairs and tables. Every individual spends about a third of their lives in bed for relaxation and privacy. As a result, most families rank bedroom furniture as the most important product to be purchased for the home. Consequently, it was observed that office and bedroom furniture were the main commodities traded on the global furniture market. 

 

Flow control magazine  noted that the household and office furniture sectors accounted for about two-thirds of the furniture sector’s revenue in US over the last decade. The high availability of market for office chairs, tables and bedroom furniture could explain the frequency of their production among manufacturers. The high rate of production also implies that large amount of wood would be needed by the office and bedroom furniture manufacturers.

 

Market Choices

Most of the firms (93 percent) sold their products on the domestic market; 92 percent of them attributed this to inability to meet international demand. 

 

Inadequate financial resources, lack of export marketing strategies and inability to meet international demands/standards are responsible for the reliance of the furniture industry on the local market for sale of products. Firms choose to sell their products on the local market because export marketing requires more time, greater financial resources and greater ability to withstand far wider and more intense competition. As a result, about 73 percent of middle-market firms in North America currently sell their products on the domestic market. 

 

However, the international market helps local industries to grow fast, improve their innovation, credibility and competitiveness by enhancing their operating capabilities. Due to the relatively small size of domestic markets, firms looking to expand their businesses must take advantage of the export markets. Therefore, the growth of the Ghanaian furniture sector could be enhanced when more firms are supported to produce furniture in quantities that meet international demand. 

 

However, this will partly be dependent on continuous supply of timber resources. With decreasing quantities of popular timbers for furniture, producers could rely on secondary timber species to augment supply and promote the competitiveness of the sector.

 

Choice Of Wood Species

Timber is the single most important raw material in the furniture industry. Certain products require specific timber species. Therefore, timber users in Ghana are very selective in their choice of wood, such that furniture products are usually made from a small number of preferred timbers. 

 

It was observed that mixed red wood (such as Cedrellaodorata, Entandrophragma spp, Khaya spp, Afzeliaafricana), A robusta, G cedrata and Tgrandis were the timber species used by majority of the manufacturers (32 percent) due to their strength, durability and aesthetics. 

 

According to a study to determine the factors influencing the choice of timber for furniture and joinery production in Ghana, among a list of 22 wood species, only few included mixed red wood, with G cedrata and T grandis mostly patronised by furniture manufacturers. 

 

Factors such as strength, cost, durability, beauty and availability influenced the choice of timber for furniture. This accounts for the high patronage of mixed red wood, A robusta, Gcedrata and Tgrandis among manufacturers. 

 

Consumers preferred to spend more money to purchase products made from strong and durable timbers that would reduce maintenance and replacement cost. Tropical timber species with great strength and good aesthetic properties such as Khayaanthoteca, Pericopsiselata, Simarouba versicolor and E cylindricum are therefore common on the Italian furniture market. 

 

Therefore, in seeking alternatives for the over-dependent primary timbers, secondary timber species that are strong, durable and aesthetically good could gain acceptance by furniture manufacturers. 

 

For instance, K gabonensis is a naturally durable and strong timber with attractive grain pattern; it is abundant in most tropical forests and has prospects for furniture-making. However, it has no information in trade statistics. Based on its characteristics, it could contribute to satisfying the raw material needs of the furniture industry.

 

Utilization Of LUS 

The volume of high-valued commercial timbers used for furniture production has reduced drastically over the years. The remaining amount of wood in the forests faces stiff competition from all the other wood-related sectors. LUS could serve as substitutes to and reduce the pressure on these commercial timbers. 

 

Several LUS whose properties make them suitable for furniture are in large quantities in the tropical forests. However, only 15 percent of manufacturers use LUS such as Celtis spp, M indica and A indica for furniture production. 

 

Mindica among several other secondary timbers used for furniture-making in Uganda. It was further observed that none of the respondents had ever used K gabonensis in their operations. Manufacturers indicated unavailability of secondary timbers on the market and lack of information regarding their properties and uses as some of the hindrances to their utilization. 

 

Utilisation of timber by wood product manufacturers depends on accessibility on the market and availability of comprehensive technical data on its properties. Similarly, dissemination of research results among wood workers about new timber species that could serve the same purpose as their already utilised counterparts would enhance their utilisation. 

 

Accessibility of data regarding the characteristics and uses of LUS such as M indica and Artocarpusheterophyllusimproved their acceptance and utilisation by Ugandan furniture manufacturers. It could be understood from the results that the level of utilisation of LUS, the likely alternatives for furniture-making, is low among manufacturers because information on their characteristics and uses are not readily available. To increase the utilisation of secondary timber species for wood products, adequate information about their abundance, properties and uses must be made available to manufacturers.

 

Sources Of Timber Materials 

Raw materials supplied to furniture manufacturers are obtained through a network of buyers who purchase timber from both private and public forest landowners. About 26 percent of the respondents sourced wood from timber markets and contractors (loggers). 

 

Wood procured from these two sources are comparatively cheaper than those sold by sawmills. Therefore, many furniture manufacturing firms prefer to buy lumber from the former. Since firms do not use secondary timber species due to market unavailability, it could be stated that timber contractors and operators do not supply LUS to furniture manufacturers. 

 

The level of supply of raw materials for any production process depends on demand for those materials by producers. In Northern India, although many secondary timber species that could be used for housing construction existed in great numbers in the forests, timber providers did not risk bringing them on the market due to their low demand among users. 

 

Therefore, the failure by timber contractors and operators to supply LUS on the market may be due to low demand for the species. Most timber sellers are unaware of the properties and the prospective uses of a lot of the LUS in the forests as well as profits that might be obtained from their sales. This leads to total neglect of the non-traditional timbers in the timber trade. 

 

Providers of timber for furniture production do not make available LUS to manufacturers due likely to a lack of understanding of their quality and profitability. Therefore, in encouraging the use of secondary timbers for furniture and other wooden products, information on the characteristics, uses and profitability of LUS should also be made available to wood suppliers.

 

Challenges 

According to Center for Industrial Studies (CSIL), about US$376 billion was obtained on the global market from the production of furniture in 2010. Furniture has greater monetary value than other wood-based products such that furniture manufacturing is an ideal option for countries that seek to earn more from the timber-processing industry. Nonetheless, furniture industries face serious challenges that have led to the collapse of many. 

 

The number of industries in Ghana’s tertiary wood sub-sector declined by over 60 percent between 1990 and 1999. It was estimated that only 26 percent of the total furniture firms in Sarawak State in Malaysia remained active as of 2009 due to myriad of problems such as decline in quantities of raw materials and rising costs of operations.

 

Respondents mentioned that non-availability of preferred wood raw material and competitions from imported furniture (due partly to poor design and quality of the domestic types) were among the challenges confronting the furniture industry. Similarly, results from a survey commissioned by Wood Workers Association of Ghana-Western Region (WWAG-WR) showed that decreasing quantities of primary timbers hindered the activities of furniture-making firms. 

 

Respondents from that survey explained that the volumes of timbers had declined drastically over the years. The few amounts remaining were difficult and expensive to acquire partly because sawmills that had large forest concessions were export-oriented and did not provide for the local market. 

 

Local manufacturers were, therefore, unable to meet customers’ increasing demand for furniture and have resorted to their importation to supplement local production. This situation has led to stunted growth of the local industry, while rendering many manufacturers jobless. 

 

The challenges associated with the drastic decline in timber supply could be reduced by encouraging the use of secondary timber species to widen the raw material base for the sector. However, manufacturers hardly use LUS primarily due to market unavailability and lack of technical information about them. 

 

Therefore, to increase the use of secondary timber resources by the wood industry, wood suppliers, product manufacturers and end users must be fed with reliable and sufficiently detailed information about the characteristics and uses of the large amount of neglected timber species in the forests. This will help meet the raw material requirement of the industry, while reducing pressure on the current commercial timber species.

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