Forest Connect works in 12 countries to link small-scale forestry enterprises to each other and to national institutions, and helps them to gather and deliver information using ICTs.
Many small and medium-sized forest enterprises (SMFEs) have little contact with other businesses, organisations and agencies in the sector. Forest Connect, established in 2007, tackles that isolation and encourages entrepreneurs to share ideas, and find funding to support their work.
The alliance currently works with national partner institutions in 12 countries, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Mozambique. Previous research and work done by the two organisations managing the project, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and FAO, showed that the selected countries suffered from an apparent lack of institutions with skills and resources to support small businesses based on sustainable forestry management practices.
SMFEs typically have fewer than 100 full-time employees. They are often informal family or community-run firms, sometimes working together in associations or co-operatives. They operate in many different sub-sectors, providing, for example, wood fuel and charcoal, or timber for construction and furniture. Some sell non-timber products, such as fruit, nuts and seeds, oils and resins, or ornamental and medicinal plants, while others are involved in tourism, conservation, or carbon sequestration services.
When national partner institutions join the alliance, they usually begin by assessing the scale and type of forestry businesses operating in their country and identifying the extent to which SMFEs play a role. The institutions also research market opportunities, governance issues that affect forestry operations and make an inventory of financial and business services. They can then put the small businesses in touch with other entrepreneurs, national forestry organisations, local and international market opportunities, and involve them with the national forestry policy processes.
The partner institutions use the information from this diagnostic process to build a database of forestry related activities in a country. They make the database available to other organisations and businesses that can then add their own information to develop a comprehensive and updated resource. Associated companies can also link into the database to develop business opportunities and improve the market supply chain.
Some partners, including Iwokrama in Guyana, have taken the information on their database to produce a web-based catalogue of their country’s SMFEs, showing the variety of products available for market. By making the data more widely available, the supporting institutions can gain a detailed understanding of where to focus their activities, allowing them to concentrate their time and resources on the most essential issues affecting the sector in their country.
Since each country faces its own unique challenges, the partner institutions have to plan their priorities around the most pressing local issues. As they respond to meet their associated SMFEs’ needs, each institution develops expertise in areas that other partners have yet to experience.
Members post blog updates, photos, videos and contribute to online discussions, turning the network into a virtual library of forestry related support material
In order to give the national partners an opportunity to share skills and ideas, Forest Connect developed a social network using the web application, Ning – backed by regular international meetings. Originally intended to be a resource site for the national associations to share material, the network has grown to involve more than 700 members in 60 countries.
Members regularly use the Ning platform to post blog updates, photos, videos and contribute to online discussions, turning the network into a virtual library of forestry-related enterprise support material. The site now generates interest among practitioners worldwide who use the messaging service to request more information on SMFE support, and in several cases, to contact agricultural and forest producer groups to develop assistance programmes with them. The managing organisations, IIED and FAO, also post articles and guides on the site, which the partner institutions can download.
Scale of change
The national partners in each of the 12 countries pass much of this information on to their associated enterprises, which can number from a few to several thousand SMFEs. Many institutions produce newsletters, online bulletin boards, provide cell phone market price updates, and organise meetings and trade fairs to communicate with the SMFEs. The information they provide gives the enterprises advice on how to gain greater market exposure, and how they can maintain their businesses and increase their income without destroying the forest.
The exchange of information has helped the national institutions to provide improved services to their respective SMFEs. When they are linked with each other in associations or federations, these small businesses can operate on a larger scale, which gives them greater bargaining power in the markets, and improves their position in discussions with policy and decision makers. A closer association with government departments also means they can challenge land tenure and commercial use policies to secure their long-term position as forest enterprises.
With improved market information, the businesses can develop, package and deliver products that are better suited to consumer demands, while links with financial and business development providers enable them to understand how to improve their products and develop professional business plans to attract investment.
As long as their rights to the forest are secure, SMFEs of whatever type, stand to gain in the long-term from protecting forest resources on which their businesses are based. Forest Connect works with these enterprises and their supporting associations to encourage sustainable use of the forest resources, providing guidance on how to make small businesses profitable while also being environmentally and socially responsible.
Duncan Macqueen is leader of the Forest Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development and Sophie Grouwels is a forestry officer, Forest Policy & Economics Team, at the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Forest Connect network on Ning
Iwokrama in Guyana
Lao Rattan Handicrafts website