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Empowering women to turn wood waste into products in Attapeu, Lao PDR

Attapeu province is located in the south of Lao PDR. Abounding in natural resources and in a strategic location bordering Cambodia and Viet Nam, Attapeu is well-known for major exports of timber and forest products which, in addition to hydroelectric power generation, have propelled the economy of the province.

The timber sector began to transform in 2016 when Prime Minister Order No. 15 (known as PMO15) on “Strengthening Strictness of Timber Harvest Management and Inspection, Timber Transport and Business” was passed, with the aim to tackle illegal logging and associated trade. Across the country, one of the impacts of PMO15 was the closure of informal wood processing factories, many of them household businesses, due to their lack of compliance with formal business registration requirements.

Yet in Attapeu, things unfolded differently. The Forest Smallholders Project of the European Forest Institute (EFI), with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), has been providing capacity building and technical support to household and small-scale wood enterprises in collaboration with the provincial and district authorities. With the authorities’ blessing, family-based furniture makers, where both husband and wife are working together, were able to continue their operations.

Reducing environmental impacts and creating economic opportunities from wood waste

In Attapeu, EFI’s work started by supporting micro, small and medium-sized wood processing enterprises (MSMEs) to comply with laws and regulations to ensure that these companies would be allowed to continue to operate. As part of this work, EFI provided customised coaching to women-led enterprises across three districts and increased focus on closing the gender equality gaps in the small-scale forest sector. The project realised that building women’s technical skills would eventually widen their economic development options, and that this could be achieved by using the existing resources available within the households to produce higher-value products.

Attapeu’s wood processing factories produce a significant amount of wood waste. Some of the waste is used for making charcoal, which causes emissions harmful to human well-being and the environment. Some production leftovers, in particular among the micro and small furniture makers, simply accumulate in their backyards without further use. Amidst this scenario, the project, in cooperation with the local government, saw an opportunity to engage with women entrepreneurs, create additional household income and promote the efficient use of natural resources. Teaming up with the Vetsaphong Technical and Vocational School (VTVS), the project started to train the MSMEs on transforming wood waste into modern-looking products. Upon learning new designs and techniques for using leftover timber to produce furniture and home or office decorations, the women entrepreneurs recognised the value of upcycling wood waste.

Mr. Yothin Vetsaphong, President of the Vetsaphong Technical and Vocational School, instructing women entrepreneurs on techniques for upcycling wood waste to make tables.

In addition to increased income, reducing unmanaged wood waste is important for the environment. The disorderly storage and burning of wood waste poses serious occupational health and safety concerns. Therefore the systematic management and upcycling of wood waste is strategic because it improves factory cleanliness, safety and the working environment. It also reduces pressure on the forest, because the amount of virgin wood that needs to be taken out of the forest decreases when a single piece of wood is recycled and used again to produce a low-carbon product.

According to Mr. Yothin Vetsaphong, President of the VTVS Board Committee: “Wood waste management needs a comprehensive approach. Carpentry is all about a practice of patience in which wood waste management can be an important exercise. Most factories in Lao PDR simply throw away the wood waste or produce low-end materials, as our timber is still abundant and labour costs for managing the wood waste is higher.” The wood waste flow below captures the essence of this intervention to leverage the economic opportunity and promote the circular economy in Attapeu.

Wood waste flow and processing chain.

Mr. Khamphiang Keolangsy, Director of VTVS, emphasised the importance of this initiative: “The essence of this training initiative is my aspiration to make sure no wood waste is abandoned. These small operators should maximise their profits from the waste, which makes them gain more value than using natural wood. As an educational institute, we need to build this fundamental awareness on systematic wood waste management.

Training sessions on wood waste upcycling were followed by direct coaching to women business owners in their production facilities to provide suggestions for better waste management and product ideas. In addition, EFI helped the businesses to create a market for their waste wood products by linking them to souvenir shops and encouraging them to participate in trade fairs.

Ms. Souksamai, the leader of a wood processing factory who participated in the training, highlighted that: “The technical training on wood waste processing and innovative design of furniture made from the wood waste is remarkably interesting for me to think about other ways to create new products. Upcycling products made of wood waste presents business opportunities for women in wood processing enterprises. Particularly in the future when raw wood is no longer abundant, the collection and management of wood waste will play a more vital role in our business operation.”

In March 2023, women business owners presented and promoted their products at the commemorative event for Lao National and International Women’s Day organised by the Provincial Lao Women’s Union. All wood waste products were sold at the fair. In June 2023, more products were produced and sold at a fair organised by the Attapeu Provincial Industry and Commerce Office (PICO) and the Provincial Cultural and Tourism Office. This shows that wood waste products have a market and MSMEs in Attapeu are ready for it!

Ms. Boakhai Keodala, leader of a household furniture workshop, works among her male peers during the wood waste utilisation training.

Scaling up women’s leadership in wood waste upcycling – challenges remain

In addition to the enhancement of technical carpentry and wood-working skills for the women-led MSMEs, the project also raised their gender and leadership awareness. The district and provincial authorities collaborated with EFI in this effort. According to Mr. Kongchai Sidavong, Deputy Director of Attapeu Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office (PAFO) who chaired one of EFI’s technical training sessions on wood waste processing: “Self-awareness is a prerequisite of good leadership, which can cultivate a common vision and develop the strategic pathways towards the goals. In such endeavours, we need both women and men to achieve this.” 

However, there is still work to be done to level the playing field. According to Ms. Thawisai Phasathan from the Gender Development Association (GDA): “Women’s inaccessibility to technical education and knowledge, together with a lack of gender awareness and opportunity, are the main factors of unequal distribution of labour between men and women.”

Unless women are continuously equipped with basic wood processing skills and confidence, the support of women’s participation in wood waste production may be ineffective in the long run, as testified by Ms. Boakhai Keodala, the leader of a household furniture workshop: “After the training, I am very mindful of throwing away any wood. All pieces are valuable to me now. I can apply the new techniques and knowledge to create new products. However, as a woman working in small-scale wood processing factory, it is challenging for me to give orders and lead the male workers to do things differently.”

Accumulated wood waste from furniture making.

Recommendations for further actions

Wood waste upcycling offers a concrete opportunity to promote sustainability, gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the small-scale wood processing industry. To make it work, there are several aspects to consider.

From the capacity development perspective, wood waste management must be included in the training offered by vocational technical schools and educational institutions. The techniques and best practices to turn waste into newly designed products should be systematised and formalised, in collaboration with provincial vocational training facilities and industrial clusters. In addition to the technical skills, training should include aspects of legal compliance with all the relevant timber legality laws and regulations. Women could play an important role in improving traceability in the small-scale wood sector; this potential should be further explored. Finally, support is needed to help individual MSMEs conduct a cost-benefit analysis and build incentives for wood waste upcycling instead of lower-value charcoal production. In this respect, financing and market access support for wood waste products will be critical to continue to empower women and promote sustainable production in the sector.

This publication was produced by the European Forest Institute with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the European Forest Institute and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of funding organisations.

Author: European Forest Institute

Date: 23 November 2023