NAIROBI NEWS- Kenyan companies are starting to produce paper from sugarcane waste in a move environmentalists hope will reduce illegal logging, reverse deforestation and help slow the effects of climate change. Illegal logging has had a dramatic effect on Kenya’s forest cover, damaging local communities and their livelihoods, disturbing natural habitats and contributing to global warming.
But the use of bagasse - the fibrous matter left over after sugarcane has been crushed and the sugar extracted - in papermaking will help protect forests as well as provide jobs and opportunities for many in western Kenya, sugar makers and environmentalists say.
Countries like India, Mexico, the United States and Australia already use bagasse to make paper. In Kenya, production began on March 10 and is still on a small scale. But as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest sugarcane producers, Kenya hopes the industry will grow to a large scale.
“We’ll be producing paper and selling it but at the same time we are helping the community preserve the tropical forests in this part of the country,” said Raju Chatte of Kibot Sugar and Allied Industries Limited, a western Kenyan company that has invested more than $14 million to start producing paper from sugarcane waste.
“We aim to buy more than 480,000 tonnes of sugarcane waste from farmers and individuals each year. In the past, most of the sugarcane waste ended up as waste in trash bins of major towns that have factories,” he said at a recent event in Nairobi.
Kibot plans to partner with other organisations in its papermaking venture. Webuye Paper Company, a paper producer that a few years ago was on the verge of bankruptcy, has also begun making paper from cheap sugarcane waste.
KEEPING LOGGERS AT BAY
The National Environment Management Authority, Kenya’s main environmental body, has licensed papermaking from bagasse, a move experts have welcomed.
“If you look at how many people cut down trees and sell the wood to factories, the incidences of this will reduce drastically in western Kenya,” said Patrick Ojera, professor of economics and business strategy at Maseno University in Kakamega, in Kenya’s Western province.
Ojera’s department is partnering with the university’s science research department to study the impact of the new initiative later this year.
“The Kakamega tropical rain forest - the only tropical forest in Kenya and one of the most important (forests) in Kenya - will be preserved and illegal loggers will be kept at bay,” Ojera predicted in an interview.
Kakamega plays an important environmental role in Kenya, as rainfall in the forest provides water for many Kenyan homes. The forest is also home to a variety of important African hardwood and softwood trees such as Elgon teak, red white stinkwoods, croton and Aniageria altisima. Splendid orchids sit amongst the branches of the larger trees.
The forest is made up of five rain forest islands with water in between and covers more than 334 square kilometres - but the forest has been shrinking, partly due to illegal logging.
“In the past four years, the forest has lost more than a third of its forest cover. Now that is set to change,” Ojera said. “What would happen to the climate if all the furniture and paper you’re using comes from a tropical rain forest?”
FROM ILLEGAL TO LEGAL LOGGING
Although paper production from bagasse is in its early stages, illegal logging is already on the decline, according to local authorities.
Illegal logging in Kakamega rainforest has reduced by almost half since March this year, said Eric Kiraithe, a spokesman from the Kenyan police, although he could not give exact figures.
More effective policing of the area is one reason for the decline in illegal logging but many local farmers and residents are also now collecting bagasse instead of cutting trees illegally, and are harvesting bamboo.
Ojera and his university are doing extensive research on sugarcane waste, including a project to discover if Kenya can produce waterproof paper from bagasse. Waterproof paper has been produced in countries like Australia but it has never been commercialised.
“Climate change and illegal logging are very closely related and the first treeless paper production factories are already operational in western Kenya. It is a good effort but we still have a long way to go,” added Ojera.
Farmers or entrepreneurs can earn as much as $2 per kilo of bagasse sold to paper factories. An average farmer can sell up to several hundred kilos of bagasse during the six-month sugarcane-harvesting period.
“I am happy my sugarcane waste does not have to go in the bin. At least I can make a few hundred dollars with just a few kilos,” said Mundia Mundia, a sugarcane farmer from Kenya’s Western province.
Western Kenya produces more paper than any other part of the country and is the biggest producer in East Africa. The global economic crisis pushed many paper producing companies close to bankruptcy, though many have recovered, and the use of sugarcane waste could help revive other struggling companies.
Kenya is so far the only country in eastern and central Africa that is producing paper from bagasse and it has plans to expand the industry. Kenya exports paper to Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia, and Kenyan paper companies have set up offices in most of those countries.
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.