Blazing a trail for timber traceability in Benin
Every year, the National Timber Office of Benin (ONAB) produces around 50 000 cubic metres of logs from 14 000 hectares of state plantations. Local businesses buy the timber, mainly teak, before processing and exporting much of it to international markets.
But since 2013, businesses have struggled to export timber to the European Union (EU) – one of the world’s largest single importers of wood – following the entry into force of the EU Timber Regulation, which works to minimize the risk of illegally harvested timber entering the EU market.
For developing countries such as Benin, one of the fastest ways to open EU doors is to get certification that timber has been legally produced – a process that starts with a solid traceability system. This assigns a unique identifying code to individual trees, so that timber can be traced back to its origin throughout the processing chain – from felling and storage to transport, and sometimes even as far as a finished product.
In the fight against illegal logging, being able to trace a log of wood back to the forest that it came from is vitally important. In Benin, the FAO Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Programme has supported the National Timber Office to establish a highly effective traceability system for its teak plantations, helping to prevent illegal activity in the logging, transport or sale of state timber. The barcode-based system, known as ONATRACK, allows workers to use smartphones to send real-time information from the forest, enabling the office to manage the plantations sustainably while also increasing profits. The system is a first step in the process of demonstrating legal timber production, which will eventually increase market access for the small and medium enterprises that process and export state timber. The system has been so successful that it is now used across all state plantations in the country and has positioned Benin as a leader in traceability in West Africa.
Connecting in the forest
When ONAB’s existing paper-based traceability system was found to be unreliable, the office sought support from the FAO EU FLEGT Programme to switch to a barcode system as a first step towards certification – and ultimately to optimizing the value of its timber on EU and international markets.
Called ONATRACK, the new traceability system comprises a software programme to generate unique barcodes for trees and their stumps and logs, and smartphone applications for scanning and recording information in the field. Even when workers deep in the forest are unable to get a phone signal, data is stored and automatically updated in a central database when they are back within range.
To keep costs down, ONAB acquired a barcode printer and trained staff to print and manage labels in-house. In addition, 75 forestry workers were trained to use the smartphone application, many using existing smartphones.
Although some workers were initially reluctant to adopt the new system, they soon recognized its advantages, such as eliminating the need for labour-intensive paperwork.
“With the old system, I wrote all the information on sheets that were periodically sent to the data processing unit to be entered,” explains ONAB tree marker Justin Hounlome. “All that took a lot of time and delayed payday. With the new system, synchronization means that the data processing unit obtains the information on the same day.”
By providing real-time information, the system not only discourages fraudulent actions in the numbering, transport and marketing of state timber but also works as a decision-making tool for ONAB in its efforts to manage state plantations sustainably.
“Apart from its original function of establishing the ‘pure traceability’ of our wood products, ONATRACK has enabled us to devise new working procedures directly related to improving the profitability of our plantations,” says Clément Kouchadé, Director General of ONAB at the time.
Sharing lessons learned
The success of the system is due in part to strong political will within ONAB and the expertise of the Cameroonian company that implemented the project. In addition, the system was introduced on a step-by-step basis, so that workers using the tool were able to play a genuine role in its development.
After a trial in southern Benin, ONATRACK is now used to monitor the harvesting of all state plantations, and a delegation of government and private sector representatives from the Ivory Coast has visited Benin to learn from the project.
“This tool makes us the leader with regard to traceability in the country, indeed in West Africa,” Kouchadé says. “The new system has enabled ONAB to improve relations with customers, to get reliable information in real time, and to combat fraud and illegal logging.”
FAO continues to provide support to the project as ONAB trains additional staff to use the system nationwide.