West African log prices have not changed during the past weeks except for the occasional adjustment of one or two species caused by demand surge, and a rounding up of prices for Asian buyers to the same level as for the European market.

Cameroon has added ayous and azobe to the list of primary species that cannot be exported as logs. For azobe this has little impact as most Cameroon sawmills have long had full order books for azobe sawn lumber and processed products, and no incentive to consider export of logs.

Azobe logs are on offer from Liberia and Equatorial Guinea, probably in sufficient volume to satisfy demand, hence there has been no price rise since January. A Dutch joint operation in the northern region of Congo has been set up to ship processed azobe through Douala, and to facilitate regular road transport it is reported that construction of 75km of road was needed in Cameroon from the Congo border. There have been recent reports that civil unrest in northern Congo may restrict access.

Ayous log ban concerns

The ayous log export ban is of particular concern to the Italian market which is the major destination for most ayous from the region. Italian buyers are scouting round for alternatives and some are trying okoumé from Gabon for at least part of their log requirements. The ongoing civil unrest in Northern Central African Republic has also restricted the supply of ayous which normally flows through to Douala. Again, prices are very firm and likely to remain so.

In contrast to the recent increases in sea freight charges from South-east Asia, freights from West African ports have been the subject of intense competition between two shipping lines, leading to a reduction of e10 per m3. The charter freight market is already very tight due to the conflict in Iraq.

There is a rumour that Ghana mills are buying logs from Congo Brazzaville, so far unconfirmed but entirely understandable as Ghana, like Indonesia and other tropical hardwood producer countries, has a processing industry with capacity far in excess of the allowable sustainable harvest volume. The dilemma of how these important industries should maintain the levels of employment relied on by rural communities is seldom addressed by the authorities or by NGOs. Strangely, the well-documented and obvious difference between available and sustainable log supply and industry capac-ity has not led to price increases for timber.

Tropical hardwood logs internationally traded are less than half the price they were 15-20 years ago.

&#8220There is a rumour that Ghana mills are buying logs from Congo Brazzaville, so far unconfirmed but entirely understandable as Ghana, like Indonesia and other tropical hardwood producer countries, has a processing industry with capacity far in excess of the allowable sustainable harvest volume”

Plantation programmes

Ghana, like some other countries, has implemented plantation programmes, and recently re-stated plans to plant substantial areas annually. But it will be many years before significant volumes of new supply are available. Also in Ghana there is to be a further crack down on illegal chainsaw operators which normally target wawa for cutting very wastefully into rough and uneven planks for sale on domestic markets.

West African lumber prices have remained stable over the past two months. Demand is generally moderate, though sawmills in Cameroon and Gabon indicate full order books and a brisk enquiry rate. Some have been pushing buyers for higher prices but in the present competitive market offers at increased price levels have met a negative response. The new regulations announced for Netherlands window manufacture – where hardwood is mandatory for cills and some softwoods are unacceptable for frames installed before masonry or brickwork is built – may help to stimulate hardwood demand in a market which is still reported as dull.

Sawmills in Gabon have noted increased demand for douka and moabi and say it is possible that the usual suppliers in Cameroon are concentrating on other species for the time being. Prices are firm but buyers resist all efforts to peg prices higher.

The ‘surface tax’ in Gabon has risen from CFa5 per hectare to CFa600 per hectare, with backdates to January 2002 which had to be paid immediately. The industry continues to complain about the ever-increasing taxes, and there are reports that the new timber taxes proposed in Congo Brazzaville are causing friction between government and log and lumber producers in the country.

Moves afoot

Some timber operators in West Africa are said to be considering a move in the longer term to either Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) or even to Angola.

Others, notably in Gabon and Cameroon, are persevering with the move to sawmilling and in Cameroon the processing of downstream products. Ghana has been in the forefront of progress towards a more integrated industry and is by far the largest exporter of furniture and furniture products. Good if not quite up-to-date statistics are found in the ITTO/ITC study Topical Timber Products, Development of Further Processing in ITTO Producer Countries. Unfortunately, no price data is given for Africa but that for Asian production noted “a general trend for a reduction in prices for the value-added products in the Asia-Pacific region”. Moulding prices also have declined 25% or more over the same period and there seems little doubt that the same competitive downward price pressure applies to products from West Africa.

Log and lumber prices are likely to remain stable and rather firm through the current quarter and demand is not forecast to show substantial improvement. Sawmills are busy and expect to remain with good order books and any price increases will be in response to surges in demand for particular species.