Archive 2003


No raw materials for Kenyan wood carvers

afrol News, 21 June 2003 - Kenya has lost 75 percent of its international market in wood carvings due to an increasing lack of raw materials. Hardwood trees are now so short of supply, due to deforestation, that the reputed Kenyan carvers have to drop productions.

Heavy pressure on Kenya's rapidly dwindling forests has caused a shortage of raw material for the country's carving industry, resulting in the loss of 75 percent of its international market in the past three years.

- Since 2000, Kenya's carvings are estimated to have lost up to 75 percent of their share in the international market, due to unsustainable production services, several the environmentalist group state.

- Western trends towards green consumerism as well as poor quality, absence of new designs, and competition from carvings made in other continents have also driven down demand for Kenya's carvings in the international market, the statement added.

The result is a complicated access to raw materials and a subsequent drop in production and exports. Carvers even were forced to dig up abandoned tree stumps for carving raw materials.

The Kenyan wood carving industry generates estimated export earnings of US$ 20 million from markets in North America, Asia, and Europe. Kenyan wood carvers over the decades have gained international reputation, especially since Kenya is and has been one of Africa's most visited tourist destinations.

Earlier estimates held that about 60,000 people were directly engaged in Kenya's wood carving industry. Given family structures, this means that probably well over quarter of a million people are economically dependent on the carving industry.

Traditionally, the industry has heavily relied on slow growing indigenous trees, especially mahogany, ebony, brachyleana, prunus, and olive for raw materials, and its "consumption of hard woods is alarmingly high," according to research done by Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and the National Museums of Kenya.

In 1999, Kenya imposed a ban on harvesting indigenous hardwood trees from public forests in a bid to curb over-exploitation, but this caused an increase in demand which spurred very high wood prices, which in turn translated into massive illegal harvesting.

In 2000, carvers were provided with alternative sources of raw materials - faster growing planted trees like neem, jacaranda and grivellia - which could help reduce pressure on natural forests.

The unsustainable nature of Kenya's wood carving industry is however nothing new. In the town of Wamunyu, 100 miles east of Nairobi, where the whole industry began almost a century ago, supply problems have been a constant threat to carvers.

Originally, Wamunyu carvers relied on local supplies of the valuable mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon), which were exhausted by the 1940s. Subsequently, the equally valuable muhuhu (Brachylaena hutchinsii) was wiped out by 1956.

- By 1974, it had actually become worthwhile for collectors to return to the sites where muhuhu trees had once been felled to dig up the roots for sale, according to a study by Raymond Obunga. By the 1990s, no local supplies remained, and an estimated 200-300 tons per week were trucked in from 100 miles away and further.