Paricipants at the AFF regional training course on forest certification for Eastern and Southern Africa, 7-11 December 2015, Mombasa, Kenya
Certification is widely advocated as a means to sustain the world’s diverse forest ecosystems. Approximately 11% of global forest area has been certified under a variety of schemes. In Africa however, forest certification is still largely a marginal concept compared to orthodox policy approaches on forestry, yet it has the potential to advance responsible forest management for the benefit of present and future generations.
A recent ‘Regional Training Course on Forest Certification for Eastern and Southern Africa’ organized by the African Forest Forum from 7-11 December 2015 in Kenya for stakeholders in forestry, highlighted some of the challenges and barriers to the uptake of forest certification services on the continent. The workshop enabled broader debate to occur in a less ideologically constrained manner for participants to openly recognize that the existing trade discourse on certification lacks the traction it once had.
Particularly because the narratives that inform forest certification as a voluntary market driven tool have proven to be so malleable and accounted for changes through time that they have continued to exude an appearance of relevance in Africa. Furthermore stories shared from past and on-going programmes in East and Southern Africa reveal a notable decline in long term sustainability owing to low return on investments, lack of perceived market advantage, weak financial and human resource capacity as well as complex certification standards and systems[1].
In addition to these practical obstacles limiting the impact of forest certification on Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) in Africa, other salient questions to be addressed with hard data from research studies or pilot projects are; what drives demand for certification of timber/wood products in this context and to what extent can the value chain be modified to reflect realities in the incentives that could influence national competitiveness and market access. Additionally, what is the financial cost-benefit analysis that proves forest certification to be an economically viable option at the local level?
Subsequently, the task ahead would be to reconstruct a trade narrative that better captures the environmental, economic and social benefits of forest certification that has at its core a concern for the interests of all African forestry stakeholders. This would be in line with the call made by the AFF Executive Secretary- Prof. Godwin Kowero and others towards the end of the regional training course, for a new paradigm on forest certification that can accelerate the adoption of good management practices in sub-Saharan Africa[2].
This nascent narrative will serve that same purpose as the existing trade narrative except it will provide empirical evidence on tangible benefits derived from certification in terms of profitability while verifying that forest products are being produced without harm to forests or to the natural and human systems that they support[3]. Part of the intent would be to inform development of market and information systems that link African forest owners/operators, primary producers and traders to the different actual and potential sub-regional, regional and international markets of certified forest products and services, which champion and reward SFM.
The other objective would be to advocate for a review of current national forest and forest related policies and strategies, laws, regulations to identify gaps towards mainstreaming of forest certification measures in institutional frameworks[4] and in developing standards and indicators upon which performance targets may be monitored and reported against. In strengthening government agencies to provide an enabling environment for the upscaling of the forest certification process, countries that are currently partially and wholly excluded from this new system of governance will begin to reap the real benefits of their participation in international trade of certified timber exports. 
It matters not that only voluntary, independent third-party, forest or chain-of-custody certification schemes can balance consumer, producer and conservation interests. What matters is that the appeal to a new trade narrative that better accounts for economic reality gives an influence of relevance and efficacy to a form of forest governance that has generated and will likely continue to preside over inequitable gains.
Moreover, in pursuing endeavors like Sustainable Forest Management – which also involves reshaping of a trade narrative around existing global conventions and a shift towards the green economy initiative –a framework for active participation of all stakeholders, including forest enterprises, environmentalists, unions, forest workers, social groups whose livelihoods depend on forest and tree resources, will be promoted to ensure consistency and credibility of the certification process.
As the African continent undergoes rapid political, economic and social transitions that could gain momentum during the coming decades[5] it is imperative that the opportunity be taken now to create this new narrative and in the process alter the relative importance of the different forest functions.
[1] Kalonga S. (2015). “Forest Certification in Practice”. Lecture, Regional Training Course on Forest Certification for Eastern and Southern Africa, African Forest Forum. Unpublished
[2] Read more on the proceedings of the Regional Training Course on Forest Certification for Eastern and Southern Africa (AFF, 2015) available at
[3] For more information, see
[4] Regional Economic Blocks such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have made progress towards this end with countries like Namibia, South African and Uganda having revised their forest/environmental policies and laws to provide more support to Forest Certification, forest companies and relevant stakeholders (AFF, 2015).
[5] Barklund, A. & Teketay, D. (2004). Forest certification: a potential tool to promote SFM in Kenya. African Forest Forum. Nairobi Kenya