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South Africa holds promise for Wisconsin’s wood industry

April 1, 2023
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: The U.S. already is an important wood exporter to South Africa, and experts say South Africa’s own timber industry is scaling back.

Wisconsin companies involved in the wood and wood product industries may find opportunities in South Africa.

South Africa has an established wood industry that contributed $3.3 billion to the country’s gross domestic product in 2019, or 1% of the total GDP, according to Forestry South Africa. The industry employed about 158,000 people directly and indirectly, primarily in rural areas, and provided social services and infrastructure construction in local communities.

South Africa has nearly 3 million acres of timber plantations, and they produce up to 18 million tons of timber each year. The country exported $1.7 billion worth of wood products in 2020—primarily pulp, paper, and solid wood—with most of the exports going to Asia and Europe.

At the same time, South Africa imports a significant amount of wood and wood products. In 2020, 10% of those imports came from U.S. companies. The value of wood and wood products that South Africa purchased from the U.S. rose from $23.6 million in 2011 to $39.8 million in 2020 (after dropping from the peak of $46.9 million in 2018). U.S. exports included sawn wood, veneer sheets, plywood, particle board, and fiberboard. Many of the purchases are high-end hardwoods used inside luxury homes and commercial buildings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service predicted that South Africa’s commercial timber industry is set to decline because of restrictions on water licenses, environmental rules on conservation, and competition for land against crops such as citrus fruits, avocados, and macadamia nuts. Fires, pests, and diseases have also hurt the industry. That opens more opportunities for wood producers in Wisconsin and throughout the U.S., where the timber industry has nearly 67 million acres planted for commercial use.

In Wisconsin, the forest products industry contributed $24.4 billion to the state’s economy in 2019, and accounted for more than 61,000 jobs, according to a Department of Natural Resources report. Nearly $1.3 billion of forestry commodities were exported to other countries in 2019.

Wisconsin’s trade office in Africa has identified 35 importers of wood and wood products in the southern part of Africa, with 20 importers in South Africa alone. In previous years, the trade office has been successful in helping to form relationships that involve sales of hardwoods—such as oak, cherry, and maple—that would likely be used as building interiors or furniture. Other African countries also have growing middle-class populations that are beginning to seek high-quality wood products for their homes and offices.

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