How timber merchants are keeping afloat

James Ongul, Managing Director of James Timberland, a workshop and timber yard based at Magumu Ward in Nyandarua County. [Courtesy]

In the last few years, Kenya’s timber business has been beset with changing dynamics that have seen many abandon the trade altogether.

In 2018, the government imposed a ban on logging leaving timber dealers and its surrounding economy high and dry. The ban was to protect forests and raise the country’s forest cover.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also seen fortunes dwindle for the timber industry.

However, timber dealers such as James Ongul (pictured) have cultivated a steely resolve and remain strong in the business.

He is the Managing Director of James Timberland, a workshop and timber yard based at Magumu Ward in Nyandarua County. From humble beginnings as a timber workshop where he crafted simple furniture for domestic use, Ongul has grown his enterprise into a reputable firm that has expanded its footprint beyond Magumu.

He worked for seven years as a sales manager in a timber logistics firm which provided him with the experience to venture out on his own. Today, he runs both a timber yard and a workshop.

“We produce various items of furniture, as a workshop. This creates a valuable symbiosis between the two ventures as we get all the raw materials from within the site. This saves us costs of purchasing timber, as that would increase the costs of production,” he told Enterprise.

He has employed six workers in various roles, which basically involve value addition on timber. Some of the timber products include door and window frames, doors, picture rails, architraves and quarter rounds.

Influx of sawmills

Besides the government permits allowing for business set-up and tree harvesting, other requirements for setting up a timber yard include a yard itself and an operating capital.

"The yard can be owned or rented. In my particular case, this is a rented yard, for which I pay Sh10,000 a month.”

As opposed to a sawmill, which ordinarily trades in bulk, a timber yard can dispense even moderately small quantities of timber or timber products. James Timberland also deals strictly in cash.

“As a business, we principally target carpenters and masons. When a building contractor is setting up a structure in the neighbourhood, the likelihood is that the contractor will come to the yard for timber.

"The contractor might also approach a timber yard for a specific product, such as timber from a particular tree species. Sawmills deal with large volumes and typically don’t service these needs, at least not with this specify and at such a small scale”.

James Timberland is set up in a region dotted with sawmills and spinoff timber enterprises. Magumu region is tucked within an ecosystem of dense forests that served her timber needs over the years - Kereita, Kinale and Ragia forests.

At the height of its fame and splendour, Magumu was famed for its flourishing lumber industry that saw the establishment of multiple sawmills that provided plenty of employment opportunities.

Lately, however, as the lumber trade lumbers through the ban on logging, timber merchants like Ongul have had to contend with bleak business prospects, prompting a number of operators to shift focus to less forbidding sectors.

"Business has really plummeted in Magumu,” Ongul laments. "This has even triggered crime surges and proliferation of social ills in recent times. The timber industry has always been the bedrock of Magumu’s economic growth. Other challenges such as the recent hike in petroleum fuel compound the problem given that transport is a critical pillar in our business model.”

He says that with the closure of forests to access by lumbers, timber merchants have resorted to alternative sources of timber in private farms. To stem the pockets of opposition that met this venture, Ongul and his fellow merchants would offer seedlings in addition to payment for trees as a way to ensure sustainability.

"As a business, we didn’t feel the shockwaves of the Act in the earlier weeks. Most saw millers had stocks, which helped cushion the shocks and stabilize prices for a while."

"But as the weeks wore on, the prices shot up. We have never quite adjusted. I saw some of my colleagues converting their vehicles that previously hauled timber to start carrying vegetables”.

Ongul’s timber yard also trades in wood fuel, sawdust and off-cuts. A sizeable number of his clients are based in Kiambu and Nairobi Counties, ware firms. He has also secured business as far as parts of eastern Kenya and Kakamega County.