By Gregory Gondwe
Since the late 1940s, Viphya Plantations commonly known as Chikangawa Forestry has been developing as a forestry reserve until independence in 1964 when the First head of State of Malawi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda had other ideas.
Dr. Banda got unspecified amount of money from the British Government in form of a loan, which later turned into a grant to develop what he called Viphya Plantations project that will be the backbone of his proposed pulp and paper making company. Several other resources were sought and pumped into the plantation.
Within that period to 1988, 53 thousand hectares of trees had been planted across the designated area; however, things turned sour when political influence and global financial recession of the 1980s saw no potential investor coming in to take advantage of the forest and start the project.
While 20,000 hectares of this forestry is now under the concessionary arrangement with Raiply, a company that replaced state run Viphya Plywood and Allied Industries VIPLY, through Privatisation, 33,000 hectares has been left in the hands of government to avail to Malawians who can harvest it.
In this write up, I am looking at a seemingly unabated deforestation of this part of forest and millions of money that are being made as a result and ponders its future by seeking out government position and those that are benefiting from it.
It looks like the Gold that was Chikangawa Forestry, at one time one of the world’s biggest manmade forests, is being eaten away and there seem no solution in sight to save it from extinction, I am trying to explore solutions that could help return the glory and aspirations within which Viphya Plantations were established.
There is a joke that makes round the northern region, associated with both the First Head of State of Malawi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, now late and the Viphya Plantations, commonly known as Chikangawa Forest.
The joke asserts that the former President Dr. Kamuzu Banda, asked people of Malawi’s three regions to tell him what their developmental needs were, while the Southern and Central Regions asked for the improvement of their cities, the north asked for a forest; and indeed Dr. Banda gave the region Chikangawa forest.
While this joke seems to have taken roots in some, Deputy Director of Forestry Responsible for the Viphya Plantations John Ngalande has a very different story on how it all began.
Recalls Ngalande: “The Viphya plantations started in the late 1940s early 1950s with small plantings in Luwawa, Chikangawa, Champhoyo up to Lusangadzi; the objective of the plantings at that time was to supply construction timber to the growing towns of Mzimba and Mzuzu”.
But in 1964 when about 3,000 hectares had been planted, soon after independence, indeed the First Head of State of Malawi Dr. Banda decided that Malawi invest in a pulp and paper making industry.
With this, between 1965 and in the late 1970s Viphya plateau experienced extensive planting before it was temporary halted in the 1979 after a feasibility study showed that this was not a viable venture.
A year later, another study proved to the contrary the findings of the first study and government scaled up the plantation of trees again up to 1985 and at this time 53,000 hectares of various species of pines had been planted.
This however faced another hurdle.
“In the 80s we had this global recession we had soaring prices of fuel oil. All prices for other commodities went up so we didn’t find an investor who was interested to come and put money in a pulp mill so the idea died,” Ngalande recalls.
Finding Purpose of the Trees
However, since government had put up an entity called Viphya Pulp and Paper Corporation (VIPCO) to look at investment in the Viphya, it was asked to look at alternative uses of the plantation and several studies were carried out. The first one was a study of making pine charcoal from pine waste to be used in the tea and tobacco industry.
But for the two industries to take up the soft charcoal and use it in its powdered form they needed to redesign their furnaces and this turned out to be unviable as well and VIPCO turned to something else.
“We also did studies on the production of resin, this is sap that comes out of the trees; we have a particular tree species called ‘pinus litae’ which produces good resin which is used in making of confectionaries and soaps,” explains Ngalande.
He further says quality of the resin was found to be sufficient but the altitude of the place brought bad tidings as it affected the quantities.
“So the altitude actually lowers the temperature and because we experience a lot of rain that also depressed the amount of resin that was produced, so that too did not work out,” he explained.
VIPCO never gave up and its endeavours saw the birth of Viphya Plywood and Allied Industries VIPLY, a parastatal that was formed in 1988 to run a mill but unfortunately, it underperformed due to bad designs throughout its life since it operated below 50% of the mill’s capacity.
Enter the Privatisation Commission of Malawi…
This is now where the Privatisation Commission came in and sold the mill to the Rai family of Kenya and became Raiply who also had a concession 20,000 hectares of the forestry while the remaining 33,000 has seen government issuing short term harvesting rights to some Malawians.
With the 20,000 hectares that Raiply has been using up, it looks like it has been rosy ever since the company took over in March 1999.
Raiply Malawi Limited Finance Director Thomas Oommen says they are utilising government forest by converting the timber into value additions and Chikangawa resources are enough to provide for the company’s raw materials.
“Basically we have four divisions in the factory,” explains Oommen.
One division called ply mill its where ply woods, shutter ply and block boards for interior and exterior grades, from 4 mm to 36 mm thicknesses are manufactured.
While the second division is called lumber division where the company sells the timber of various qualities like air-dry timber, cured dry timber, specially impregnated timbers for various constructions and other industrial users.
The third division of the factory is called value addition furniture where all types of furniture for schools, offices and other users is made while the fourth division is where they manufacture tanned machine poles used by the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM).
Just to illustrate how much the country is benefiting from the venture, the company is now significantly contributing towards the country’s annual exports as this last year alone it accrued to over K700 million and has prospects of a bright future.
Explains Oommen: “About 50 percent of our products, we are exporting to neighbouring African countries like South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. We are contributing much to the economic growth for this country by bringing more forex to the country by exporting the good, it’s coming up to about K700m per year, the rest we are selling in the local market.”
According to Oommen Raiply has employed 2000 people and doing a number of social responsibility for the country it has built schools both secondary and primary schools as well as a health clinic which it provides with other infrastructures, it also runs an HIV/AIDS clinic stocked with ARVS. They are also sponsoring sports for schools in the region as well as supporting the Northern Region Football league worth half a million.
It has done road signs across the country, besides construction of one of the courts in the district, has built an office for the police at Jenda Road block and has now built a structure where the NBS bank will be renting and provide banking services.
The company has more plans including new investments.
Oommen says Raiply is now putting up a new factory with a tune of US$20m to be opened by middle of next year 2010.
“And the work is going on, so we are converting this timber into value added products, which called is medium certified board, which is more popular all over the world. This product will bring more forex and 80 to 90 percent of this product we are aiming to export outside Malawi; within Africa and Middle East…,”he says
Re-plantation and Failure thereof
Re-plantation is a primary objective of the company and since it started, it has replanted 4,000 hectares; this year it is replanting 500 hectares. Per year, the company harvests 200 hectares and with a new company coming in Raiply will be harvesting between 400 and 500 hectares per year.
However, while the song of Raiply and its 20,000 hectares concession sounds merry, the one for the 33,000 hectares is not pleasing to the ear.
Since the idea of giving out concessions has been put on hold as government is considering a Public Private Partnership Policy, in the interim Government decided to offer the public rights since most of the trees are over mature; 45 to 50 % of the trees are dead and to avoid wastage that why these people have come in.
“It is not an ideal situation; it’s difficult to manage. Sometimes the numbers fluctuate and becomes difficult to control and because we are few on the ground with very little resources in terms of transportation to offer proper supervision we have some illegal harvesting taking place and unfortunately by the time we find out, the damage has already happened,” explains Ngalande.
One other hurdle is that Malawians take these licences on behalf of foreigners while others steal the trees and due to capacity, the plantation cannot check on them and many resources being lost.
This year alone, there are 70 licence holders that are harvesting trees and with each is employing over fifty people to check on them is not easy.
While life in the forestry by those that are milling timber is stoical, their discipline to brave the cold weather and poor diet in the forestry means greater damage to the forest.
Chikumbutso Mulli works for Mulli Brothers Limited, which has a short term harvesting licence trading as Flatland Timbers.
“We saw more than 900 pieces of wood that is if we are using all our three cutting machines because our each of our machines can lumber about 300 wood timbers; depending on how successful we have been in that particular day we send about two or a single truckload of timber,” explains Mulli
Right in the deep of the forest, I run into Derrick Nyasulu who works for Blocken Msuku Timbers he says their employer has 76 of them working for him.
“At least per day we cut over 100 wood pieces depending on the required sizes,” he says.
This means that on a good day they do 150 planks of different sizes, which are around 80 to 90 trees.
Susan Bondo has been in the timber selling business for the last 8 years at the plantation’s major market outlet of ironically called Matabwa Market in the city Mzuzu. She says with K100, 000 a person can start ordering planks from the plantation and this generates a profit of over 150%.
There are over 150 timber traders at the Matabwa Market and 75 of them are women, some widowed and they are concerned that they could find themselves out of business due to lack of replanting the forest as Bondo is saying:
“This business is profitable at the time when it is our traditional trading season which commences as soon as the Tobacco Auction floors has been opened…Of course reforestation is ongoing at a very minimal scale, my advice is that reforestation should not stop.”
She also says most of their biggest customers are foreigners from Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia.
The Invasion of Foreigners
“We have heard of foreigners infiltrating. These things happen when you grant a licence to a Malawian who will have indicated that they have capital but in the process of doing the business they find that they have no money, so sometimes they collude with foreigners,” says Ngalande.
He says repeatedly they have stopped this business to clear out such things.
Ngalande says when people cut their timber; they are free to sell it locally while some of them actually export.
“But we also found some weaknesses in the export market that what was happening initially in the sawing has now been moved to the exportation that some Malawians will seen to be taking their own timber outside the country especially the northern corridors Tanzania, Kenya but in the process they will also be assisting these foreigners,” explains Ngalande.
An immigration source at the Malawi and Tanzania Songwe border told ZBS that they see between 20 to 30 truckloads of timber from Chikangawa exiting Malawi on a daily basis.
However, the department is now gearing up to join hands with the Malawi Revenue Authority, Ministry of Industry and Trade, Export Promotion council and see how the situation can be improved, failure to do so will force the manager to stop issuing out licences…
The plantation only gets K15 million budgetary allocation when it needs about K80 million to replant a thousand hectares of trees. This is against the background that it makes about K170million annually, which is sent to the coffers of the central government.
The Forest as a Source of Water
While things are at this, Viphya Plantation is the designated water source for the Northern Region Water Board, which has identified two rivers Lambilambi and Licheremo that will be used as sources of dams that will supply water to Mzuzu City and the surrounding areas in the next 70 years.
Titus Mtegha is the northern Region Water Board General Manager and says the project will cost K15.4 billion
“The government of Malawi through the ministry of irrigation and water development hired a consultant to do some feasibility studies for the future water source for Mzuzu,” he says.
The studies that have been done so far by the consultant came up with recommendations that the two potential sites that need to be developed for the Northern Region Water Board is Lambilambi and Licheremo.
“His recommendations is that initially we should develop Lambilambi which much higher than Mzuzu and has enough capacity to supply water for the next 30 years, so we that we should be able to gravitate water to Mzuzu which is a very big advantage to Mzuzu in terms of costs of supplying water,” said Mtegha.
He added that once they develop the first site, the study recommended that they should already put in conservation measures for the second site, which is Licheremo and has the capacity to supply Mzuzu for the next 40 years.
Looking at the way the damage has been rampaging across the plantation, government engaged experts who have just completed a study on the Private sector involvement in Forestry under some international institutions facility and through the Forestry Governance Learning Group, which was looking the value chain analysis of the Chikangawa gold.
This, plus many other efforts will perhaps save the golden forest from total disappearance.
Anybody’s prayer is that government which started the project for beneficial reasons should still keep up its good purpose for starting the plantation by ensuring that the people of the region who per the joke asked the first President for the forest benefit from its resources which being a national asset also benefits all the Malawians .