When the rugged brown containers landed in Italy, they were met by the eager officials of a leading wood furniture firm. The three men in broken suits felt like giving the containers huge bear hugs but instead settled for broad smiles. They had been tracking the cargo ship’s progress ever since it left Douala port in Cameroon. It took the mammoth ship three weeks to arrive in Genoa, Italy.
The containers contained sawn timber that would find its way into Italian warehouses in the coming weeks and consequently be used to craft world-class furniture.
Barely a year later in the same port, gleaming and exquisite high-end furniture was loaded into other strong containers. There were kitchen side-boards with golden-rimmed frames; a wide variety of outdoor sofas spotting beautifully woven warm-colored fabrics; dazzling arm chairs with back cushions that were as soft as feathers; chaise lounges (sofa beds) that invite you to take a rest... The furniture was diverse, beautiful and expensive, earning Italy millions of Euros in exports.
Two years ago, Italy exported €190 million worth of furniture to China. Last year in 2014, sales shot to €290 million. Overall, wood furniture exports were worth €13.1 billion in 2014, which marked a fifth consecutive year of growth. Meanwhile, Cameroon earned $4.2 billion from all its exports in 2012. In other words, the entire exports of this West African country in 2012 were only a third of what Italy earned from exports of wood furniture in 2014.
Underpinning some of the furniture that earned Italy billions was high quality hardwood imported from Cameroon. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Cameroon has a forest cover of 20 million hectares even though independent studies put this even higher at 22.5 million hectares, almost half of the entire country. That’s huge. This Central Africa’s forest cover is five times the size of Netherlands.
This is the forest producing some of the wood that earns Italy billions. Which begs the question – how can Cameroon also earn billions from the forest? A forest that is immensely rich in teak trees, ayous trees (Triplochiton scleroxylon), sapele trees (Entandrophragma cylindricum), azobé trees (Lophira alata), and dozens of many more decades-old gigantic trees. To appreciate the sheer size of these trees, stand next to one and face it.
When I first came face to face with a full grown African teak, I.. Wait, let me first tell you how I found myself facing this green giant.
Itching for an adventure, I had organized a trip to Kakamega Forest. Though beset by planning challenges that saw us change vehicles at the last minute, the friends who joined me on the trip were a happy gang and we had a jolly good time on the six hour drive from Nairobi to Kakamega. Because we arrived late at night, I didn’t see much of the forest until the following day in the wee hours of the morning.
As is my practice, I woke up a bit earlier than the sun and ventured tentatively into the forest.
‘Habari ya asubuhi bro!’ Good morning bro! I shouted at Gabriel, the leader of Kakamega Environmental Education Group that was in charge of the cottages that we were staying in. He was also an early bird and was just getting into the compound as I was walking out.
After a ten-minute leisurely stroll, I felt as if I had walked into the very lungs and kidneys of the forest. I was surrounded by massive whispering trees on every side. I peeped behind one of the giant trees, half expecting to see the face of God. That’s how pure the moment felt. My brown eyes moved slowly from the tree’s rough base, up its rugged trunk, further up its bare mid-section then settled on a green flurry of outstretched branches. Africa’s famous teak tree stared back it me in gentle serenity.
The life of a teak tree starts with bats. Not birds, but bats. They disperse the seeds of the trees. This winged mammals often dine of Teak fruits and because seeds in the fruits are indigestible, they are defecated into the waiting arms of the soil. Two or three decades later, the seeds could grow into fifty-metre teaks whose fruits invite more bats to dine away and trigger the teak journey all over again.
African teaks have been described by Bwak the Bantu poet as having, ‘bare beginnings that peak in spending green crowns.’ For the first twenty metres or so, the trees are completely bare, with branches showing at this twenty-metre mark. They evoke memories of coconut trees that are similarly bare until later stages of the trunk.