By Colin Lindeque
Namibia is currently facing an uphill economic battle, having recently slipped into a recession, coupled with a staggering unemployment rate of over 30%, which is exacerbated further still by low international commodity prices, affecting some of our largest national income earners from the mining sector.
So, what if I told you that Namibia has 400 million barrels of oil going unnoticed? Not in any offshore deposit, but rather lying right in our backyard. Not only is it within reach, but you can even harvest it with an axe.
Namibia’s standing wood resource, stemming from bush encroachment, is exactly that. It is equivalent to 400 million barrels of oil, which, if valued in today’s terms, is worth northwards of NAD 370 billion, or approximately three times the total gross domestic product (GDP) in Namibia for 2016.
However, if it were actual oil, there would be a thriving industry around it by now, spurred on by our government, international conglomerates, and foreign powers.
The fact is, our resource isn’t in oil form, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. On the contrary, being so readily accessible to the average Namibian means that our biomass resource will spur on far more macro-economic benefits than that of a traditional oil-based industry.
Not only will the extraction and processing of this biomass resource have the potential to sustain thousands upon thousands of jobs, but it would also have the added benefit of supporting more productive agriculture as a result, amplifying the benefits further still.
Some will argue that the resource has not gone completely unnoticed, and that Namibians are indeed exploiting the resource, however, the magnitude of this current utilisation is unremarkable to say the least.
Take the well-established charcoal sector as an example; Namibia is one of the world’s largest charcoal producers, however, the total biomass currently being extracted towards our annual charcoal production equates to a paltry 0.15% of the total standing biomass resource in the country.
At this rate, Namibia would need to increase charcoal production by a factor of 20, simply to meet and mitigate the annual spread of bush encroachment over our lands. We should not forget that bush encroachment is largely a man-made problem, caused by generations of mismanagement, stemming from lacking information, misinformation, and myopia.
So, unless we are willing to wait for nature to sort itself out, which it would invariably do, but at its own lumbering timeframe, we have to actively try and reverse this imbalance of bush that we have ourselves caused.
We now face a national challenge. We have thousands of farmers who are paralysed by the impenetrable thicket of bush covering their lands, as they are unable to continue rearing livestock as they once did.
The ever worsening situation has left them in a dire financial situation, leaving them exposed to other external factors such as drought, fluctuating livestock prices, and ever-increasing input costs.
It goes without saying, but the resource is not going to extract and process itself. However, before even that is addressed, we need to come to a consensus as Namibians that we have the will to do something about this overwhelming opportunity.
Essentially, everything is already in place to allow for a thriving biomass-based economy in Namibia; we have the strong regulatory framework, promoting the sustainable use of the resource; we have the necessary skills and technologies available to access and process the resource; we have the local and international investors available to fund these activities; and we have a string of supporting bodies, including but not limited to the Namibia Biomass Industry Group, the Namibia Charcoal Association, the De-bushing Advisory Services, and the GIZ-MAWF Bush Control and Biomass Utilisation project.
We even have foreign markets knocking at our doors, asking for the resource in volumes we can barely fathom. So, what, you may ask is the stumbling block that is invariably keeping us back?
Namibians don’t seem to be able to see the forest through the trees.
We seem to be unaware, or possibly even uninterested. And while money may not grow on trees, in Namibia it certainly does grow on bushes. We just have to go out and grab it.
* Authored by Colin Lindeque, General Manager of the Namibia Biomass Industry Group (N-BiG), an industry association for the biomass sector in Namibia. For more information, see www.n-big.org