Monday, May 16, 2011

Furnishing Angolan Schools with Unused Resources

Perched high on Angola’s central plateau, the city of Huambo is home to a fledgling furniture industry now playing a key role in furnishing local schools. Taking advantage of ample supplies of eucalyptus trees, a non-profit NGO is now operating a small-scale furniture factory to produce high-quality desks, chairs and other wooden fittings to meet the needs of the country’s expanding school system.

Angola’s eucalyptus forests stretch along its railroads and were originally created to supply wood to power steam locomotives in the absence of other local fuels. Steam trains along the Benguela Railway crossing Huambo and central Angola ceased to run in the 1970s, effectively ending mass timber consumption. A revamped Benguela line will reopen in late 2012, but the wood-guzzling locomotives have been replaced by modern diesel engines.

Meanwhile, the abandoned eucalyptus trees, left untended, have grown higher and gained greater girths, enhancing their suitability for furniture-making.  Angola has 148,000 hectares of nonnative tree plantations, mainly eucalyptus, with over a third of the total belonging to the Benguela Railway Company.

Around 80% of Huambo’s schools along with their equipment and furniture were destroyed during the country’s long civil war, but since peace returned in 2002 there has been an exciting rebirth in educational provision with pupil numbers rocketing, handing HabiTec a huge and urgent market for its products.

The furniture factory is run by HabiTec Social Enterprise which has 45 Angolan employees, including seven administrative staff. Manual jobs include sawing-machine operators, mechanics and maintenance teams  in seeking to serve Angola’s educational sector. Habitec's aim is to improve productive capacity, focusing on school furniture as the government has established targets to improve the quality of teaching and reduce illiteracy. In order to do this, there needs to be physical school infrastructure – and quality school furniture is the basis of this program.

The capacity at the factory is 200 units a day of desks, chairs, chalkboards and other pieces of educational furniture.  The company has an arrangement with the Angolan government to produce school furniture worth about $30 million over the next five years for its schools-rehabilitation program. This amounts to 40,000 units produced every six months. Many provincial governments and other state agencies have also shown interest in
HabiTec’s products and services.

HabiTec, founded in 1998, is a social enterprise aiming to contribute to the rebuilding of Angola. Parent company Development Workshop (DW) is a highly respected non-governmental body active in Angolan social projects for 30 years. As international funding ebbed after civil war ended, DW transformed some of its projects into commercially-based companies, managed under the umbrella organisation HabiTec Social Enterprise.

The country faces the challenge of rebuilding its social, physical and productive infrastructure. HabiTec has clearly identified the economic and social sectors where its know-how can be most effective. Its furniture factory is just one area where the company is engaged not only in creating jobs and replacing imports, but also in providing a growing population with access to basic services and educational opportunities through investing in local productive capacity.  (Sonangol Universal Magazine, April 2011)