Forests and woodlands in Africa

January 25, 2011, 6:54 pm
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Riparian forest, southern Zambia. @ C. Michael Hogan

Forests and woodlands in Africa occupy an estimated 650 million hectares (ha) or 21.8 percent of the land area of this continent. These account for 16.8 percent of the global forest cover. Many of the forests are severely fragmented due to the encroachment of an expanding human population, leading to demand for firewood and extensive conversion of land to agricultural use. The distribution of forests and woodlands varies from one sub-region to the other, with Northern Africa having the least forest cover while Central Africa has the densest cover. The Congo basin in Central Africa is home to the world’s second largest continuous block of tropical rainforest.

Overview of resources

caption Figure 1: Forest, woodlands and vegetation cover. (Source: UNEP/DEWA/GRID 2005: data from ECJRC 2003)

Africa’s forests and woodlands can be classified into nine general categories including tropical rain forests, tropical moist forests, tropical dry forests, tropical shrubs, tropical mountain forest, subtropical humid forests, subtropical dry forests, subtropical mountain forests and plantations. Mangrove forests cover 3390,107 ha. Only 32.5 million ha of forests and woodlands, or five percent of the total forest area, are formally protected.

The forest sector in Africa plays an important role in the livelihoods of many communities and in the economic development of many countries. This is particularly so in Western, Central and Eastern Africa where there is considerable forest cover. Africa has a high per capita forest cover at 0.8 ha per person compared to 0.6 ha globally.

On average, forests account for 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Africa, which is the highest in the world. In Uganda, for example, forests and woodlands are now recognized as an important component of the nation’s stock of economic assets and they contribute in excess of US$546.6 million to the economy through forestry, tourism, agriculture and energy. Forests and woodlands also contribute to the long-term social and economic development goals of New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and can play an important role in addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and meeting its targets. They provide energy, food, timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and are important contributors to wealth and health at the household, community, national, sub-regional, regional or even global level. See Further Reading for more information on the MDGs and their targets, as well as progress towards them.

Forests and woodlands are also key components of the environment and provide essential services that are critical to combating land degradation and climate change, as well as to conserving wetlands, coastal areas and freshwater systems. In this regard, the NEPAD program on forests and woodlands is critical to the success of the other NEPAD programmes, including those on combating land degradation and climate change, and on conserving wetlands, coastal and freshwater resources.


The forests and woodlands of Africa are home to large numbers of flora and fauna species, many of which are African endemics; moreover, many of these populations have come under threat in the last several decades, chiefly due to the human population explosion on the continent. Besides the outright loss of large amounts of habitat, the fragmentation of habitat of woodlands and forests has placed great stress upon populations of fauna that require sizable home ranges, such as the endangered Painted Hunting Dog and Cheetah.

Endowments and opportunities

caption Wood carving provides valuable income for many rural families. Wooden sculptures for sale on the roadside, Kenya. (Source: V. Rabesahala)

Forests and woodlands provided a wide range of goods and services that create opportunities for development and improving human well-being. Some goods, such as wood for fuel and construction, are quite evident while others, such as water sources, are less obvious. The environmental functions of forests and woodlands include protecting catchment, purifying water and regulating river flows, which in turn ensure the supply of water for hydropower generation. Forests and woodlands also help prevent soil erosion (from water and wind) and thus are critical for agriculture and food production. They supply timber, wood for energy, construction materials and NTFPs including food and medicines. Other services include provision of shade, habitat functions, grazing, cultural (sacred groves, shade, peace trees and plants, meeting places, boundaries and training areas) and aesthetic values. The overall value of these goods and services is immense: it has been suggested that if the value of carbon sequestration is added to the above values, the local value of forests could easily support flourishing local livelihoods, while allowing forest-adjacent communities to maintain their security.

Manufacturing and value-added activities

In Central and Western Africa, the forest sector contributes more than 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) through export of timber products. Africa’s wood production (including roundwood and fuelwood) increased from 340 million m3 in 1980 to 699 million m3 in 2000. However, trade is characterized by unprocessed products, primarily roundwood and sawn planks. This means that the full potential value of forest resources is not captured. A huge opportunity, therefore, exists in investing in value-adding and processing of wood products. The main existing value-added products are paper, furniture and sawn logs produced essentially by the established private sector, and charcoal production and crafts by the informal sector.

Greater benefits can be realized in those countries with significant hardwood forests, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon, through more innovative institutional arrangements such as market-based price determination through tendering, improving tax collection through the privatization of tax revenue collection, or privatizing commercial functions. A number of countries have now imposed restrictions on log exports to encourage domestic processing. Domestic processing, however, has to be supported by strict quality control if African processed wood products are to gain secure access to the international market. Additionally, products will require certification to show that they come from sustainably managed forests, given the growing environmental consciousness of global consumers.


In Eastern, Western and Southern Africa, more than 90 percent of rural households depend on woodfuel, including fuelwood and charcoal, for their energy requirements. The sustainability of this high dependence is questionable and, increasingly, African countries are looking at the energy opportunities offered by other resources, including solar and wind energy.

Woodfuel supports lucrative local trade. Trade in charcoal is a major source of income for many households. For example, in Zambia, the charcoal industry generated about US$30 million in 1998 alone, and in the same year about 60,000 Zambians directly depended on charcoal production for the bulk of their income.

As charcoal becomes an important tradable commodity, there is an opportunity for governments to recognize and regularize charcoal production by putting in place long-term plans for sustainable production, while at the same time creating a supportive legal and economic framework for micro- and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) development. Increasing efficiency and ensuring that the development of this sector does not accelerate deforestation requires appropriate policy interventions. There is ongoing research to develop more efficient charcoal production methods using improved kilns in a number of countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. There is also research on charcoal briquettes production using wastes such as farm refuse, sawdust and woodchips. These initiatives can be supported through active private sector involvement.

Urban markets for wood products are already attracting investment from the private sector and this interest is growing in many countries. There are additional opportunities for medium- and long-term investment. Commercial plantations for fuelwood and construction timber are big business in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and many Sahelian countries like Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.

Non-timber forest products

caption Table 1: Trade in non-timber forest products. (Source: FAO 2002)

In addition to the mainstream timber products, like timber and woodfuel, forests and woodlands support other activities including ecotourism, the crafts industry, the traditional medicine sector, the pharmaceutical industry and bushmeat trade. These too are significant in enhancing household incomes. For example, it was estimated that 2.9 million people (530,000 households), lived within 5 km of closed canopy forest in Kenya in 1995, and depended on forests to provide timber and NTFPs. The woodcarving industry in Kenya, for example, supported over 80,000 people with approximately 400,000 dependants, and was worth US$8.21 million. There is scope for building on the potential of these resources to contribute to livelihoods and development through, for example, increased partnerships and improved opportunities for local people to engage in these activities.

The contribution of forests and woodlands to national economies through production of gums and resins, medicinal plants, honey and beeswax, and bushmeat, though not quantified, is quite considerable. Table 1 shows some of the main NTFPs traded in Africa. Sudan, for instance, is the biggest producer of gums and resins in the world, commanding over 80 percent of global production. The potential for increased production of gums and resins in Sudan as well as the neighboring states of Kenya, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Central Africa Republic is huge.

Another emerging NTFP export sector is medicinal plants. In 2003, the annual export trade in medicinal plants in South Africa was estimated at about US$60 million, while in Zambia annual exports were valued at about US$4.4 million. Medicinal plants are a growing major foreign exchange earner in Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon, with annual earnings of US$12.4, 12.8 and 2.9 million, respectively. Northern Africa has one of the richest, oldest and most diverse uses of medicinal plants in the region.

Medicinal plants are also an important commodity in local markets as many people still rely on traditional medicine for their primary health care. In Ethiopia, for instance, 600 plant species are documented as being used in traditional medicine. This important role is underlined by the high ratio of traditional healers to western-trained medical doctors, estimated to be 92:1 in Ghana and 149:1 in Nigeria.

As research advances, the role of medicinal plants in the pharmaceutical industries is increasing exponentially. Some of the opportunities and challenges associated with this sector are highlighted in the article "Human dimension of development in Africa". The natural stock may not be able to sustain the demand, especially if poorly managed. There is an opportunity for investing in the growing of medicinal plants to supply the growing demand. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) are working with farmers in Northern Africa to promote the conservation of endangered and economically useful medicinal and aromatic plants, indigenous knowledge, and the equitable participation of people in the management and conservation of these plants. In Southern Africa, there is also an increase in the use of medicinal plants; this may be related to harsh economic circumstances, high population growth and the prevalence of incurable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

Markets for environmental services

caption Medicinal plants market near Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. (Source: C. Lambrechts/UNEP)
caption The rain forest of Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar, has historically been used for cultural purposes. Here, coffins are sheltered by the roots of ancient trees. (Source: R. Butler/WildMadagascar)

Forests provide a wide array of environmental resources, some of which can be successfully commercialized, increasing financial benefits. Environmental services from forests also have non-use values. Forests play an important role in carbon sequestration, and by investing in forest development and conservation countries can benefit from carbon trading. A number of corporate institutions in Europe are already benefiting from carbon trading by investing in tree planting in some parts of Africa. Carbon trading also offers opportunities for indigenous companies and in particular SMEs. The market for environmental services from forests is growing rapidly around the world, often facilitated by national and regional policies as well as international conventions and agreements. Certain segments of society that are able and willing to pay for these services are creating opportunities for the forest owners. Markets for carbon sequestration have been adopted in Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Madagascar.

The increasing demand for nature-based recreation has induced a dynamic private sector involvement in the management of game reserves and parks in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Madagascar.

Many nature-based tourism and ecotourism activities revolve around forests, establishing a strong cause-and-effect relationship between ecotourism development and forest use. Ecotourism provides a means by which people can use forests and wildlife, without extracting resources or degrading the environment, and draw income from it. This non-extractive aspect presents a strong incentive to protect the resource. However, the capacity of ecotourism to generate income and employment for surrounding communities depends on how well it is managed, and in particular on the systems set up for planning and benefit sharing. Strengthening local institutions for forest management and developing information, through research on multiple uses of forests and new products of potential commercial value, creates investment opportunities for both the scientific community and the private sector.


Forest and woodland resources in Africa continue to play a major role in the livelihoods of many communities, and in development more generally. The role played by forests and woodlands as sources of energy, food products and medicinal plants, as well as for the protection of catchment and water quality, is a major contribution to many national economies. These opportunities are under threat from changes in the state and integrity of the forests.

Low investment in the forest sector, increasing population pressure, weak public sector institutions responsible for forestry resources management, deforestation and declining forest quality are jeopardizing the environmental services and community benefits. Reduced access to forest products has a number of implications, including increased shortages of woodfuel, and it impacts negatively on the nutrition status of many.

Government action will, therefore, need to address a number of key concerns, including actively engaging the private sector and civil society in forestry and woodland resource management, and reviewing the legal and institutional capacities of the public sector institutions responsible for forestry resources. Governments will also need to undertake comprehensive inventory and valuation of forests and woodlands, and to introduce mechanisms which encourage sustainable utilization of forest and woodland resources, including issuing concessions on standing volumes rather than harvested volumes.

Specifically, African governments will need to put in place strong policies and find resources to enforce them. Conservation and sustainable use and management of Africa’s forests and woodlands are necessary as the basis for the promotion, development and growth of other sectors. In this regard, it is important that African states implement various aspects of the CBD by developing and implementing national biodiversity strategic action plans, nature reserves and protected areas systems. The accomplishment of set targets on biological diversity are of particular importance to the well-being and livelihood needs of Africa’s people.

Further Reading


This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Western Indian Ocean Islands and coastal and marine environments  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Forests and woodlands and development challenges in Africa


Disclaimer: This article contains information that was originally published by the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Programme, U. (2011). Forests and woodlands in Africa. Retrieved from


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