Adding value in Africa

Photo: Interholco

Interholco’s IFO operation in the Republic of Congo is demonstrating the viability of value-added tropical timber product manufacture in Africa.

At its Ngombé site, the company’s finger-jointed, laminated window scantling plant now has annual production capacity of 5,000 m3. It’s using a spread of timber species, all FSC-certified, selling to window makers in a range of European markets and looking to break into new ones. Interholco’s (IHC) vice-president sales and production Christophe Janssen acknowledged that developing the market for the products was initially a challenge. “Some established customers for our logs and sawn timber were conservative and said you couldn’t do value added production in Africa. They assumed there would be glue and other problems with scantlings, and that they’d cause machining difficulties,” he said. “It was a case of finding a different type of customer willing to try something new. Once we did that, we were then approached by our traditional customers interested in running trials, after which they placed orders.”

IHC said the key to making the operation a success was its focus on consistent quality and performance. It installed latest processing equipment from the outset and has updated it since. Sourcing all its timber from its own concessions gives it a further handle on quality. “We have complete control of what’s going into the production process and, combining this with tried and tested manufacturing methods, backed by regular quality audits, we’ve shown we can match anything on the market,” said Mr Janssen. Providing assurance on performance, IHC scantlings are also accredited to standard CTB-LCA 221 by French timber technical institute FCBA.

IHC produces a number of scantling types, including KKK (three layers of finger jointed lamellas), DKD (with solid outer layers and finger jointed mid-layer), plus bespoke products with two, three or more layers. Sapele is the plant’s main raw material, but it is also manufacturing in Kosipo and developing use of Tali, Bossé, Sipo, Limbali and Padouk. Utilising this spread of species adds to customer choice and, says IHC, helps make most sustainable use of the forest resource. The scantlings first developed a following among customers in France, Germany and Belgium, and are now starting to sell in Spain and Portugal. IHC is also sending trial batches to the UK and US.

There is clearly now growing ambition in value-added timber product manufacture in Africa, underlined by the decision of ministers at last September’s meeting of CEMAC, the Economic Community of Central Africa, to end Congo Basin log exports at the start of 2022. They also backed formation of the Regional Committee for Sustainable Industrial Development of the Timber Industry (CRIB). Interholco is optimistic about developing its value-added business. It sees ‘opportunities for more specialist items for particular industries’, potentially including laminated construction products.

For the full report on IHC’s value-added strategy: