An analysis of the opportunities and burdens associated to a forest-based bioeconomy in sub-Saharan Africa from a social sustainability standpoint

In this review I examine the opportunities and burdens associated to a forest-based bioeconomy in sub-Saharan Africa.

As part of my masters’ program in Forest Bioeconomy Business and Policy at the University of Helsinki, I completed a summer internship with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). This internship was supervised by Dr. Christopher Martius from the research group on “Climate change, energy and low-carbon development” located in the Bonn’s offices in Germany and was co-funded by the two institutions.

Bioeconomy, i.e. the arm of the economy that relies on the use of renewable biological resources as an effort to develop a low-carbon, sustainable future, has been proposed as a solution to many societal challenges. It is generally lightly assumed that transitioning towards sustainable bioeconomy will help achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1,2.

Rural populations of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) heavily rely on the land sector, and notably on their forests, for income and subsistence. They are thus bioeconomy actors by default. However, increasing short-term profit oriented and unsustainable demand for the land and forest resources these populations depend on, driven by political-economic, environmental and social factors, their livelihoods are threatened. Transitioning towards a sustainable forest-based bioeconomy might offer a win-win solution for forest resources conservation, through sustainable management, and for improved livelihood of rural communities, by adopting a long-term vision, optimizing value chains and adding value to forest products and services. Yet, does it?

As bioeconomy strategies are increasingly being developed and implemented around the world, they have so far focused on the technological and economic aspects of the concept, often leaving aside or taking for granted matters of social sustainability 3,4. Understanding the benefits and burdens associated with a transition to bioeconomy is especially important for poor rural communities, such as rural populations of SSA, for which inequalities might be exacerbated due to their already fragile economic status and to their dependence on the natural resources and/or lands targeted by bioeconomy applications. National or regional bioeconomy objectives may very well clash with rural populations and forest-dependent communities’ interests, instead of fostering sustainable resource management, social inclusion and poverty reduction. Indeed, the economy of SSA states also relies significantly on the land sector (on average, 15 % of the GDP in SSA is attributable to agriculture, forestry and fishing according to the World Bank 5) and, furthermore, their role as biomass producers for the Global North, where current bioeconomy expansion might increase the demand for raw materials, is also expected to increase.

With this in mind, I set as an objective for my internship project to identify which forest-based bioeconomy elements were most apparent in SSA, and examine the outcomes associated with such a forest-based bioeconomy (FBBE) in rural communities from the point of view of social sustainability. I aimed to investigate, on one hand, the socio-economic benefits associated to a FBBE and the factors that may be enabling or hindering them, and, on the other hand, the burdens and inequities that a FBBE might create or exacerbate. All forest uses, encompassing both traditional and novel forest uses (i.e. bioeconomy according to the Global North’s definition), were considered in this work.

To these ends, I completed an abstract-based literature review that identified, following the screening of 3 academic research databases using a carefully designed keywords search strings, a sample of 360 abstracts published between 2000 and 2020. The retrieved abstracts covered 30 SSA countries, although less than half were the object of more than 5 publications. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Cameroon were the most often identified in my literature sample. While the short time frame of the study did not allow for a full in-depth literature review, this study focuses on giving an overview of how the topic is currently represented in the peer-reviewed literature.

Characterization of the forest-based bioeconomy and its opportunities

My results indicate that the forest sector in SSA is still largely informal and mostly traditional: only 8% of the studies had elements of novel/modern forest uses. However, a sizeable body of the literature analyzed contained elements of “transition” towards novel forest uses (41%) and point to a bioeconomy perspective, even though technologically innovative forest undertakings are still mostly missing. These studies investigate notably the development of value chains and value added products from forests, or the bioenergy applications. The remaining 51% referred to traditional forest bioeconomy activities (e.g. plantations, community forestry, sustainable forest management, use of non-timber forest products (NTFPs)).

Thirteen recurring themes appeared in the sample of abstracts. Of those, the role of NTFPs as income generators appeared overall as central, followed by value chain improvement and importance of forests for livelihood and wellbeing. Within the small category addressing novel forest activities, the most recurrent themes were found in four categories: bioenergy, value chain improvement, governance and initiatives, and economic policy instruments.

Considering the importance of NTFPs and the number of studies on value chains improvement, this type of forest use probably presents a good opportunity for bioeconomy development in rural SSA. Likewise, poor energy security in SSA, which is associated with environmental degradation, health, gender and equality issues, could benefit from a bioeconomy perspective on the bioenergy sector. However, efforts towards bioenergy should be deployed with local interests in mind and not to please the hypothetical Global North’s biomass demand.

Elements of social sustainability

A first look at the keywords of the literature sample revealed minimal presence of keywords associated with social sustainability elements. At the exception of the terms “livelihoods”, “sustainability” and “poverty”, other social sustainability keywords are founds in less than 5% of the publications (e.g. equity in less than 1% of publications). The abstract screening further revealed that social sustainability elements were on many occasions used to legitimize or contextualize the studies rather than being the object of the study. Income creation, quality of life (mainly the category of inequalities pertaining to benefit sharing or generalities concerning improved livelihood), and resource conservation/environment were the socio-economic sustainability elements that were most often mentioned. The latter brings forward the well-known sustainability challenge of decoupling economic development from natural resource use and degradation, especially in a context of poverty.

When information on the socio-economic sustainability outcomes of the various forest uses was detectable in the abstracts (66% of the cases), it was mostly a positive (45%) or mixed outcome (38%), i.e. positive or negative outcomes could arise depending on the context. A positive outcome was associated with improved livelihood in the form of higher income, higher profitability, improved inter and intra-generational benefit capture, better access to markets, access to education and training, conservation of natural resources so that use is sustainable, or land tenure rights.  Negative outcomes were associated with loss of the natural resources needed for subsistence due to overexploitation, dispossession and displacement (often referred to as green or land grabbing), inequalities in benefit sharing, gender issues, or elite capture.

Challenges of forest-based bioeconomy in SSA

Overall, the challenges associated with the forest-based bioeconomy that were identified by this review are not new and have been the object of many publications regarding the forest sector in Africa. Challenges deriving from a land politics rooted in SSA’s colonial legacy were highlighted in many studies and are pertinent to both traditional and modern forest-based bioeconomies. On one hand, the development of a bioeconomy is confronted with contradictory or uncoordinated forest policies and regulations, which disincentive sustainable development. For example, decentralization attempts have granted more rights to rural populations but have not been supported with human and physical capital, leaving rural populations unable to pursue development. Forest policies are ignored, unknown or undermined by complex bureaucratic procedures put in place by the forest agencies. On the other hand, bioeconomy is confronted with the overlap and clash between a formal and informal system, concerning both land tenure and trade. While formalizing tenure and trade would foster equal access to benefits, it may also lead to the exclusion or marginalization of populations that are historically dependent on their forests. Furthermore, both formal and informal trades are prone to corruption practices, either from forest officials or unscrupulous entrepreneurs. A forest-based bioeconomy may also be linked to patterns of land grabbing and appropriation of labor and financial resources of smallholders by forest investors and/or state actors, which result in elite capture, spatial injustice, displacement and disempowerment of rural populations. Finally, lack of knowledge and skills in forest sustainable management, business management or entrepreneurship, as well as lack of investment, financing opportunities or enabling policies to propel forest products and markets, all hamper the development of forest activities.

Where do we stand?

In conclusion, while, hypothetically, the forest-based bioeconomy has the potential to enrich the forest sector in SSA and contribute to poverty reduction and natural resources conservation, solid bioeconomy strategies will first need to address the persistent forest sector challenges resulting from colonial inheritance. Traditional and novel forest uses are tightly linked and they hold common sustainability challenges. Aiming for modern bioeconomy without resolving to a certain degree these wicked problems would only reproduce (and perhaps worsen) the current pattern of burdens and inequalities in SSA’s rural populations. A greater research focus on how forest bioeconomy applications could yield a positive socio-economic impact for vulnerable rural populations is critically needed. Likewise, a socio-economic sustainability analysis of past and current undertakings might help shed light on which directions to follow while providing “good and bad practices examples”. Indubitably, bioeconomy-focused development initiatives are today in place in SSA, although they were not detected by this review because academic literature might not be the best place to capture such information. In a next step, it would be interesting to analyze the grey literature on the topic in order to identify what kind of on-the-ground actions exist and how they might impact socio-economic sustainability.

Link to full study available soon.

1  Ramcilovic-Suominen, S. and H. Pülzl (2018). Sustainable development – A ‘selling point’ of the emerging EU bioeconomy policy framework? Journal of Cleaner Production 172: 4170-4180.

2  Pfau, S. F., J. E. Hagens, B. Dankbaar and A. J. M. Smits (2014).  Visions of Sustainability in Bioeconomy Research. Sustainability 6(3): 1222-1249

Priefer, C., J. Jörissen and O. Frör (2017). Pathways to Shape the Bioeconomy. Resources 6(10): 1-23

4  Sanz-Hernández, A., E. Esteban and P. Garrido (2019). Transition to a bioeconomy: Perspectives from social sciences. Journal of Cleaner Production 224: 107-119.

World Bank data on agriculture, forestry and fishing in Sub-Saharan Africa