Forestry knowledge acquisition, dissemination and application: Trends in Africa and implications for the future

Alice Akinyi Kaudia1


Forests and woodlands are lifeline resources. Yet access to forest resources, particularly by resource-poor communities is becoming more limited by the day. There is - as always - a need to improve the productivity of forest resources. But this requires sound scientific information, supportive policies, good research infrastructure, adequate budgets and a skilled human resource capital and capability. The capacity of African countries to provide the necessary conditions for sustainable management of forest resources, together with specific benefits to their people and support to forest industry development, continues to deteriorate. Governments of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), in partnership with international funding agencies, have been instituting changes in research approaches and forest management policies to provide remedial interventions to address the deteriorating conditions. This paper presents experiences from SSA, examines implications for future strategies for research, human resource capacity and capability building, knowledge dissemination and technology application by farmers and the industry.

1. Introduction

Continued decline and degradation of forests in Africa have been consistently reported to date (WRI, 1994; Dada, 2000; UNEP, 2002; FAO, 2003). Recent assessments, for example, the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in the State of the World's Forest Report, 2001 and the Forest Outlook Study for Africa 2000-2020 (FAO, 2003) print a grim picture, but provide knowledge-based pinnacles for intervention. The Forest Outlook Study for Africa presents seven major trends and challenges for the forest sector in Africa. Two of these were found relevant to this paper and are used as a background for analysing the concerns on forest knowledge acquisition, dissemination and application to facilitate contribution of forests to livelihoods and quality of life of smallholder communities and forest industries in Africa.

The report states that over the next 20 years:

The above paragraphs illuminate the interconnectedness between management of forests/tree resources and support to livelihoods for communities in Africa, as well as economic development and growth. A major drawback is the impoverished state of scientific institutions and human resource capacity in Africa (Dada, 2002; Gaillard et al., 2002). Without information and knowledge derived from sound research, forest development in Africa will continue to retrogress.

Some recent initiatives that support improvements include the programme on forests for the Environmental Action Plan of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) which, for instance, sets the key criteria for selecting projects to be funded under NEPAD through the Global Environment Facility/United Nations Environment Programme (GEF/UNEP) to include regional scope, capacity building, multifocus and programmatic approach.

Networks to build scientific capacity, to promote change in the forest policies of major international agencies like the World Bank, and the efforts of African governments to adopt participatory development and National Forest Programmes (NFPs) are other examples of changes that are encouraging multiple actors and partnerships in forest research and development in Africa.

In this paper, the processes of change are discussed, starting with evolving forest research approaches and going on to the dissemination of acquired knowledge in the context of changing forest resource management approaches.

Forest research: emerging strategies

In postcolonial Africa and up to the 1980s, Gaillard et al. (2002) report that African governments invested substantially in the development of science and technology institutions, coordinating bodies, human resource capital formation and institutional capacity building through external aid. A drastic turnaround is recorded since the 1990s. Cuts in funding, war, and poor science and research policies, among other things, have led to dilapidating institutions and a mass brain drain. Would African institutions have suffered this kind of deterioration if African governments had laid a foundation for self-reliance, self-sustenance, democratization and equitable distribution of benefits from development among stakeholders, as suggested by the Revised Framework of Principles for the implementation of the New International Order for Africa (Adedeji, 2002)?

Forestry research in Africa has suffered because of the factors outlined in the previous paragraph and particularly because of the long gap between investment and enjoyment of benefits from investment and hence a limited capacity to demonstrate the benefits of forestry in the short run. Sall (1994) therefore recommended long-term investment commitments in forestry research from external aid and internal sources. Even then, changes in forestry policy and practice, which have seen the incorporating of participatory approaches in forestry research and management of forest resources, the pegging of investment in forestry research to potential benefits to addressing poverty and transboundary problems like HIV/AIDS, have increased the level of funding necessary for impact-oriented research. As resources dwindled and competition for the same increased from the government, the private sector and communities, the need to focus on the social, economic and political dimensions of forestry as suggested by Sayer (1994) has become evident. This necessity has resulted in change in institutional arrangements for technology generation through research by incorporating multiple players without commensurate increase in funding.

Partnerships between the public and private sectors, non-governmental organizations and communities as described in FAO (1997) and the use of networks as frameworks for financing transnational research projects have become possibilities for pooling resources and enhancing research capacity. But how are these new research partnership strategies functioning and what is their scope for sustainability? Examples of forest research networks can serve to answer this question.

The African Forest Research Network (AFORNET) was formed in 1998 under the auspices of the African Academy of Sciences. The Forestry Research Network in sub-Saharan Africa (FORNESSA) was formed in 2000 under FAO. Both networks focus on forest research capacity building through financing research and related activities. They cover the whole of SSA. AFORNET focuses on building the scientific capacity of individual scientists by providing research grants for transnational teams of researchers. Focus is on four research themes: (i) Natural forest management and biodiversity conservation; (ii) Community-based forestry; (iii) Reforestation and rehabilitation of degraded lands; (iv) Non-timber forest products and lesser-known timber. Institutional capacity building is the focus of FORNESSA. Research and related grants are awarded based on prioritized research areas (Chikamai and Konuche, 2000; KEFRI 2000).

Analysis of the modes for financing the networks and their functional operations is cause for some concern. First, the networks depend entirely on external aid. This is a weakness that threatens continuity when donor funds are stopped. Second, approaches used for identifying appropriate research themes vary. Every network identifies research themes independently. Consequently, the benefits from pooling resources are overshadowed. This works against the need to increase levels of investment in forestry research. Apart from reliance on external funding and uncoordinated selection of research areas for focus, research that targets outputs that are responsive to practical (immediate use) needs and strategic (long-term development) needs of stakeholders is limited. The financed projects therefore capture development needs as perceived by experts at tertiary level. By down-playing stakeholder involvement in setting research agenda, the relevance of research and eventual adoption of generated technologies and innovations is set back. It is likely that increased level of funding would facilitate exhaustive consultation with stakeholders. How such increases can be attained is a research question when it is noted that despite being signatories to the Lagos Plan of Action, most African governments still invest less than 1% of their Gross Domestic Product on science and technology (Ojeogwu and Nwaedozie, 2001). Even at the lower funding levels, research can still be made relevant to local needs. Planning research and designing research programmes can be responsive to local needs if such plans incorporate participatory involvement of stakeholders. Beyond this, encouraging research partnership - a principle already embedded in NEPAD - can benefit from multiple skills and knowledge backgrounds.

Access to and application of forestry knowledge

Useful knowledge is applied knowledge. Just like useful information is disseminated information. Sustainable management and conservation of all types of forests in Africa depends on the existence of suitable policies and legislation, knowledge and skills of the human resources capital, technology and innovations, as well as well organized marketing systems for forest products.

Access to and provision of knowledge

Approaches to aid access to forestry technologies, information and knowledge have developed into models that call on consumers, communities and industrial interests to be proactive. They are required not only to source the knowledge, but also to pay for it. This is a major change from practices during the precolonial era to mid 1980s when technology push, subsidies and incentives characterized forestry extension services (Smith, 1994; Kaudia, 1996).

Within a new framework of facilitation of knowledge transfer and demand-driven extension services, community members are getting engaged as providers of extension services. In most cases they serve as trainers of fellow farmers (Kaudia and Omoro, 2001) and directly provide knowledge to other community members as on-farm agroforestry researchers and demonstrators of technology (Atta-krah, 1994).

The current implementation framework of forestry policies of major international agencies like the World Bank (World Bank, 2002) and NEPAD emphasize participatory approaches, community-driven development and inclusion of multiple partners. But there are underlying challenges that should be addressed. The emerging extension strategies in Africa, which are founded on demand-driven policies and community-driven practices, presume that the extension practitioners have the knowledge and social skills to facilitate knowledge dissemination by community members, and that community members have the financial capacity to afford extension services. These assumptions are questionable because the limited experience in the region indicates that community-driven extension is not sustainable. The community-extension providers are expected to provide such services as volunteers. How can a hungry poor person serve as a volunteer?

The opportunity costs of labour-time of such community members are very high when the value of such labour in meeting daily subsistence needs of households is taken into account. Community members active on such voluntary activities are not to be discouraged, but their contribution to building up the range of resources necessary for sustainable livelihoods of households as depicted in Figure 1 becomes constrained. This can cause social disintegration within households and curtail productive contribution to forestry. [Insert Figure 1 here or near here.]

The human resource base for participatory extension is weak. Remedial in-service training programmes aimed at changing the attitudes and behaviour of foresters from militant policing and protectionists to people-oriented forest resources managers and extension persons are recent. Invariably, indications are that there is limited experience with approaches that support participatory resource management approaches like Joint Forest Management (in the case of forest-adjacent communities) and with facilitating self-mobilized on-farm tree-growing activities by communities in predominantly agricultural areas. This is explained by, among other factors, the type of curriculum used during the formal training of foresters.

The curricula, most of which have not been reviewed, favoured industrial forestry, technical subjects, and protective forest policies and practices. During the last decade, attempts have been made to review the curricula, for example in the Southern African Development Community region (Jarlind, 1998; GOF, 2001) and to implement remedial in-service courses (Franks et al., 2000). Despite the enormous investments in training as a means of developing capability and enhancing knowledge dissemination, designs of most programmes have not incorporated participatory training methods that enhance learning by adults. Methods founded in pedagogical philosophies predominate. Lessons that can aid further development are therefore limited. Recent initiatives with attempted systematization of training modelled in Figure 2 are new. Their effectiveness and sustainability have yet to be tested with time. Even then, such isolated project-based schemes omit institutional entrenchment and hence long-term partnerships and investment commitment. [Insert Figure 2 here or near here.]

Another area of change that presents a challenge is the current focus on market-oriented production. Market-oriented agroforestry practices as advocated by ICRAF (2002) support the experience with outgrower schemes as reported by Arnold (1998) in relation to forestry in South Africa. It is in line with the World Bank (2002) forest strategy of linking forestry to poverty alleviation. Market-oriented production can provide better-option incentives for small-scale tree growers compared to subsistence-oriented production. Some underlying challenges must be addressed, for instance, the limited research and hence knowledge of methods for economically valuing on-farm trees, minor forest products - especially in drylands, and assessment of demand-supply situations by producers. Limited skills in economic valuation of forest products and services by rural communities can handicap profitable linkages with the industries and markets. As in most market chains, limited producer skills and knowledge can be to the advantage of intermediary service providers and end-of-the-line consumer industries. Community-driven institutions like marketing cooperatives will be necessary to empower producers to benefit from the proposed links with industries and markets.

Technology adoption and application

Adoption of forestry technologies by rural communities in Africa has remained at subsistence level. Up-scaling has been evident in situations where economic returns are evident in the short-run. In Kenya, for example, the government departments and NGOs have had to scale down raising tree seedlings of species like Grevillea robusta and Dovyalis caffra. Demand for these two species is high and private small-scale entrepreneurs have invested in raising the seedlings using cheaper creative methods. They offer competitive prices and enjoy good business. This kind of situation contrasts with other tree-based technologies like alley cropping for soil fertility improvement, which have remained at demonstration scale. Recent moves to identify necessary conditions for enhanced adoption of agroforestry technologies as outlined by Cooper and Denning (1999), as well as the introduction of market-oriented production (ICRAF, 2002) are indications that adoption of agroforestry technologies has not attained the expected levels and scale.

Other farm forestry practices based on indigenous knowledge systems have not been assessed extensively. Generally however, farmers will conserve selected trees whose socio-cultural values are known to them. For example, among the Baganda of Uganda, every homestead retains or grows Ficus natalensis trees for production of the bark cloth.

Numerous examples indicate that scarcity of woodland and forest resources can drive communities to undermine their forest resources base, which they would otherwise manage under conservative utilization schemes.

Some suggestions for the future

"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
Alexander Pope, 1711 (Truelove, 1997: p. 145).

Knowledge and technologies, skilled human resource capital, functioning institutions and supporting policies and legislation are necessary conditions for attaining the goals of emerging strategies for tree-growing by communities and the private sector, as well as the intensified efforts to address short-comings in research capacity, knowledge dissemination and adoption. Suggested future directions in research, technology dissemination and promoted adoption include:


The current institutional arrangements for forest research, targeting programme and transnational institutional partnerships to solve common problems, will involve resolving broader problems. However, this strategy should be in parallel with national and local level focuses. In particular, critical attention should be paid to approaches for formulating research agenda to ensure relevance to target beneficiaries. At the moment, global identification of areas of focus by financing agencies is done in the form of themes into which African researchers fit-in. This does not imply that the identified themes are irrelevant. But, if local active participation, especially from potential beneficiaries is to be captured, then local-level analysis is an indispensable prelude to research undertakings. Participatory processes require higher levels of financial investment, especially for consultative planning and joint implementation. While it is admissible that donor-based financing is inevitable, innovative mechanisms for mobilizing internal resources to supplement donor funds are necessary. If profitability of forestry enterprises can be evident and attractive to the private sector, then consultancy-based and contract research are viable options in addition to direct trade in products and services. Small research grants will continue to play an important role in building the research skills of scientists in the formative stages of their career. But, bigger mileage can be gained if African governments increase the funding levels for research from internal sources, so as to depend on external funding for supplementation.

Knowledge and technology dissemination

Technology dissemination, training and farmer extension-education have been perceived by development agencies as remedial prescriptions to impart new skills and improve the competence of foresters and other actors in natural resources management. A lot of investment has been made in training across SSA. Some lessons from previous experience suggest that:

Overall, training facilitators should devise measurable indicators of the impact of training. It is not sufficient for a project to claim success based on number of people trained. It is more important to track knowledge flow, diffusion and changes in forest resource/ farm forestry practices. Such changes can be in the form of improved attitudes of foresters to participatory forest management, reduced levels of community conflicts as a result of application of better mediation and conflict management skills, and operational self-driven community institutions. Participatory training methods, for example, the collaborative learning approach by Daniels and Walker (1997) suit the current needs of the forest sector whereby communities are being drawn into joint forest management arrangements with Forest Departments. Promoting community-driven initiatives will capture the aspect of empowerment and sustainability. These are essential elements for sustainable forestry development.


Africa will continue to lag behind in science and technology. Opportunity for improvement will depend on how well African governments articulate self-reliance and sustenance against a challenging background of globalization and market-driven development.

Demand-driven knowledge-dissemination policies are definitely not pro-poor. The public sector should therefore continue to be the main service provider for extension services to rural resource-poor communities. As for research, innovative funding mechanisms for extension should be devised. Without this, degradation of forest and woodland resource base will continue as communities strive to meet their livelihood support needs without rehabilitating degraded areas.

A skilled dynamic human resource capital is essential to facilitate forest research and development encompassing technical and social dimensions. Comprehensive in-service training programmes will need to be designed. When founded on regional partnerships, such programmes can be more valuable than in-country "quick-fix" programmes. The packaging of training programmes should therefore be based on extensive participatory planning incorporating key stakeholders so as to make such programmes practically relevant. In addition, monitoring and impact assessment should be strong components of the plans.


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Figure 1. Sustainable livelihoods framework

Figure 2. Collaborative natural resources management model

1 Assistant Director, Kenya Forestry Research Institute, P. O. Box 20412-00200, Nairobi. [email protected]; [email protected]