Restorative insights at the pool in Kigali

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8 June 2017

A recent meeting in Rwanda concluded that enabling investment in business capacity development is vital to get small-scale forest entrepreneurs ready for 'asset investment' – and promote forest landscape restoration at scale. 

Rwanda has made significant commitments on restoration. Kigali, surrounded by green hills, was a particularly fitting venue for the African Forest Landscape Investment Forum (Photo: atulinda Images, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Last week, the poolside conference centre in the Marriott hotel in Kigali was home to the African Forest Landscape Investment Forum (FLIF) and I had the good fortune to be invited to attend.

The forum attracted several hundred investors and business managers, as well as representatives of government departments and non-governmental organisations. The event was titled 'Unleashing business opportunities for sustainable landscapes' – and delivering forest landscape restoration (FLR) through business development was the focus of animated discussions throughout the week.

There is certainly business potential in FLR. Ambitious targets have been set in the Bonn Challenge, which is aiming to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 and driving much of the money and people behind FLR.

Rwanda has made significant commitments on restoration, and many other development fronts, making the pristine streets and green hills of Kigali a particularly fitting venue for the forum. 

There was no shortage of evidence that FLR can make good business sense in Africa. A number of initiatives and companies showcased profitable outcomes including:

But despite the range of product types and landscape management systems presented at the forum, the pipeline of enterprises ready for investment is thin. As much was said to me by some of nine specialists in 'asset investment' (where investors put in capital to a business in the expectation of a reasonable return), who openly called for good investable proposals during the forum.

The challenge is that in remote forest landscapes, significant 'enabling' investments are needed in market analysis, business and financial literacy training and technical extension before any asset investment is possible. Local, or 'first-tier', Forest and Farm Producer Organisations (FFPOs) need a lot of help to develop bankable businesses.

And without such enabling investment to improve that asset investment pipeline, the prospects for upscaling business to restore forest landscapes is likely to remain a pipe-dream. 

Enabling investment, now often known as business incubation, is at the heart of the second phase of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' (FAO) Forest Farm Facility (FFF), which I was representing in Kigali on behalf of IIED. FFF provides direct support to small-scale enterprises on business skills, policy engagement, climate-smart forest landscape restoration and social service provision. 

Helping second-tier FFPOs (associations of FFPOs) develop business incubation capacity is also a central theme of FFF phase II, which will run until 2022. By developing such services and networking capacities within second-tier FFPOs, the sustainability of long-term business development can be assured, especially since cost recovery for business incubation services can provide an income stream to second-tier FFPOs.

During the meeting, representatives of FFPOs in Kenya and Zambia explained how groups of forest producers are forming associations, creating an increasing number of second-tier organisations in these countries. Examples of those involved include tree nursery managers, timber growers, charcoal and wood-fuel producers, and bamboo and honey farmers. 

In Kenya the Farm Forestry Smallholder Producers Association of Kenya now represents more than 5,000 tree growers. In Zambia, a new National Tree Growers Association is temporarily being nurtured within the existing cotton association.

Although it represents a different sector, the cotton association is well-practiced in business support. It is now helping to install business incubation skills in the forest sector and the tree growers association will also benefit from their 'farmer field schools' and other capacity development approaches. The FFF plans to link these second-tier producer associations to the African Agribusiness Incubators Network to enable them to access expert support within the region.

Our experience shows that business incubation in remote forest landscapes is tough. Education is limited, entrepreneurs are sparse, logistics are challenging and innovation is hard to come by.

For that reason, IIED, as part of its knowledge generation within the FFF, is beginning to compile case studies of different business incubation approaches to inform the design of FFPO business incubation services. 

Hopefully, this information will be one small contribution to the restorative thinking that was going on by the pool in Kigali – and help facilitate a more innovative, business-friendly environment that can effectively promote landscape restoration at scale.

Duncan Macqueen (duncan.macqueen@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

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