DUBBED the industry of hope by many, the bio-energy explosion in Namibia indeed brought hope to many in a poor Namibian economy and the worst drought in decades.
As the export of charcoal and firewood to South Africa, and Europe, reached record tonnages in the months since the onset of the long dry season, thousands more employment opportunities were created in the agricultural sector, on whose land the industry is settled.
New outlets were also found for chipped invader bush, and apart from the charcoal derived from this scourge to farmland, the industry are fast becoming industrialised to the point where it can be divorced from being a pure agricultural industry and is heading to a free standing pillar of the economy.
According to the general manager of N-BIG, Mr. Colin Lindeque, the organisation facilitating all manners of application and utilisation of invader bush, almost 50 percent of all charcoal exports goes to South Africa, as well as many-many tonnes of firewood. The rest mainly goes to Europe, where strict forestry certification is in place.
In just the last few months, exports shot up to almost 200 000 tonnes and employment figures in the industry reached 8000 or more.
With the charcoal industry getting more organized, the demand for certified charcoal and forest products to South Africa is also now picking up.
That leaves Namibian farmers in a dilemma, as they first have to make sure production on their farms are properly certified.
To be able to become a certified supplier, exporters have to source product from producers who are members of the Forest Stewardship Council. In short, it is a controlled industry and certification guarantees entry into the lucrative markets which need to assure fair labour practices and generally protect the environment.
The certification process, however, might take some time, as an environmental impact study has to be done, labour practices have to be adhered to and a score of other issues have to be ticked on the checklist.
The massive influx into the industry is, in a perverse way, in danger of a good rainy season when need and administrative tyranny might weigh against each other in the argument of rapid continuation of the industry.
Fortunately, argues industrial thinkers and traders, there is cash in the devil bush of Namibia to be picked up and the industry is backed by good support systems, knowledge, research and the dire need of alternative sources of heat energy, which Namibia has an abundance of.
More than one local industry are using wood chips in generating power for their manufacturing processes and NamPower made plans to generate about 40 MW of electricity out of invader bush.
The only hurdle to overcome, and soon at that, is getting the industry organized. Some markets in the East are indeed willing to accept non-SFC charcoal and other forestry products, but with rapid changes in trading conditions, that can indeed change soon.
Because of the fact that certification are amongst other things, dependent on an environmental impact study to the satisfaction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, the process might be time consuming. Only certain plant species are allowed to be harvested for the manufacturing process, while others has to be protected at all cost. The department of Forestry has to visit farms physically to access areas invaded by bush to decide on its suitability for large scale harvesting. In this regard, an announcement during the recently held high level economic recovery committee, that communal areas can be included in the industry, is easier said than done. Because of ownership issues and the arrangement with labour, fees to harvesters and controls over the environment, the line ministries will still have to come up with a management plan.