Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative?
The Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative is a Tanzanian NGO that promotes the sustainable use of East African blackwood and forest conservation. This is an innovative approach that aims to promote habitat conservation and local development. See About Us for more details
What are the Initiative's goals?
Our aim is to use mpingo as an economic tool to advance the conservation of mpingo’s natural habitat: miombo woodland. Conservation of the natural habitat will be achieved by ensuring that local people living in mpingo harvesting areas receive a fair share of the worth of mpingo, thus providing them an incentive to manage the forest habitat in an environmentally friendly manner. See About Us for more details
What does the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative do?
The Project works in practical conservation, research and raises awareness in mpingo conservation within Tanzania and the UK. See conservation, research and awareness-raising for more details
Where does the Initiative work?
The Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative works in Kilwa District, in south-eastern Tanzania. See where we work for more details
What is Participatory Forest Management (PFM)?
PFM is a strategy to achieve sustainable forest management by encouraging the management or co-management of forest and woodland resources by the communities living closest to the resources. It is characterised by forest-adjacent communities sharing power rather than just benefits, and assuming owner/user rights and management of the resources. See PFM in Tanzania for more details.
What is forest certification?
This is a system to certify forest management complies with international standards and best practices of sustainable management and fair treatment of local people. All such systems involve regular inspections and audits by accredited bodies to ensure the rules are properly adhered to. Products made from timber originating from certified forests can be labelled as such so consumers can make an informed choice to purchase products which has been ethically sourced. Certified timber can both command a price premium and have access to markets closed to non-certified products
What is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)?
The FSC is the best known and most rigorous certifying body. Governments, NGOs and timber companies are all represented on its board. Its principles incorporate environmental, ecological, social and economic elements. The FSC’s tree tick mark label can be seen on much garden furniture sold in Europe and the US.
How much do local people benefit?
Historically in Tanzania communities have received negligible benefits from timber growing on their land. Logging companies typically pay local youths TZS 2,000/- (less than $2) per log. By comparison with tropical agriculture this is relatively good money (most people in the area subsist on less than $1 per day), and so the loggers tend to be welcomed enthusiastically. An even smaller fee of TZS 100/- (less than $0.10) per log is paid to the village council. This is tiny compared to the licence fee of around 25,000/- ($19) per log which the logging company is supposed to pay the government, though evasion is common. However, under a new government policy communities can take control over their forest resources through a process called Participatory Forest Management, which entitles them to keep the 25,000/-, two hundred and fifty times more what they have received in the past. MCDI is helping communities to do this, but it is a difficult process that can take considerable time to complete, but we are committed to long-term engagement with the communities and we are beginning to see the benefits of our efforts pay off.
What proportion of the cost of an instrument is that?
To ask what proportion of the final sale price of an instrument goes direct to a rural community in Tanzania is somewhat misleading because it ignores the tremendous amount of value-added along the way (instrument makers are highly skilled people) and the large amount of waste at the sawmill. However a manufacturer in the UK will pay around £25 for a set of billets to produce a clarinet, which is likely eventually to retail for at least £500, and often £2,000 or more. If the price of the wood was doubled it would make only a small difference to the final sale price of an instrument, but when passed back to rural communities in Africa would allow them to charge $60 or more per log of mpingo, a further substantial increase which would make a very big difference to them.
So are musicians to blame?
No musician should feel guilty about their instrument unless they knew at the time they were buying an unethical product. Music should be a source of joy and celebration not bitter recriminations. However there is no doubt that musicians have been unwittingly part of an unsustainable and sometimes unethical trade network which has negligible benefits for those poor African farmers at the other end. Musicians who want to do something about it should see here.
What about carvings?
Carvings are certainly part of the picture. However the trade in carvings is much more diverse with many more actors than the musical instrument trade, which is why the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative is focusing its initial efforts on developing a sustainable supply for musical instruments before tackling the carvings industry.
How is this related to deforestation?
Selective logging for valuable species is the start of a long process which can lead to deforestation. By the time larger trees have been felled communities may have got addicted to the income from logging, although it is still a pittance compared to the value of the timber. Since the harvesting was not sustainable, in order to maintain their new way of life they may then go on to fell smaller trees and less valuable species, thus eliminating the potential for further income from timber for a generation, and so the forest is now close to worthless. If close to an urban centre the remaining trees may then be clear felled to make charcoal effectively deforesting the area. Tropical deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, so illegal and unsustainable logging is indirectly contributing to one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Should I buy this instrument?
If you need a new instrument, then yes you should. Unfortunately, instruments certified as having been made from mpingo felled in forests managed sustainably by local communities assisted by the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative will not be available for a few years. However you can also ask your retailer if they know about the source of the wood for the instrument, and urge them to pass your concerns back to the manufacturer. Ask what strategy they have to ensure future instruments are not made at the expense of poor African communities and the global environment, and point them in the direction of the project and this web-site.
Should I buy mpingo carvings?
Traditional wood carving in East Africa is a wonderful art form, and worthy of your support. As with musical instruments, though, that does not mean you cannot inquire of the origin of the wood used to make the carving. Like any industry, carvers will respond to the demands of customers and you can help make a difference each time you put such questions to a carvings retailer.
What instruments are made from it?
Mpingo is the wood of choice for high quality clarinets, oboes, wooden flutes and bagpipes. Musical instrument manufacturers often know mpingo as grenadilla. See the uses of mpingo for more details
Are there any other uses of mpingo?
Mpingo is traditionally used for carving by several tribes in East Africa. The Makonde, whose tribal lands straddle the Tanzania-Mozambique border, are particularly renowned for their mpingo carving. Today mpingo is used for carvings sold to the tourist trade. Local people use mpingo to make all-wooden hoes, pestles, knife handles, supports for buildings such as granaries and in house construction. The tree also has uses in traditional medicine. See the uses of mpingo for more details
What is the yield from sawn mpingo?
Mpingo is a smaller tree than most timber species. Trees also rarely grow straight and fault free; bends, lateral twists and deep fluting are all common, as is heartrot which disproportionately affects larger trees. Unfortunately even the smallest fault can cause the wood to split when it is put on a lathe to make an instrument, hence wastage rates when sawing billets for export is very high. Yield rates at the best sawmills are generally less than 20%, and in the less efficient ones yields can be under 5%. Confusion over forest regulations also means that large branches are often left in the bush. Carvers do not suffer the same problems as sawmills as skilled carvers are able to follow the grain and incorporate the twists and turns of the wood into their work.
What volumes of mpingo are traded?
It is estimated that the annual global demand for mpingo to make musical instruments is in the range 150-200m³. Due to the small size of the tree, its twisted growth patterns and high levels of wastage this equates to at least 20,000 trees felled each year to meet the demands of the musical instrument trade. Estimating the consumption of wood to supply the carving industry is much harder, but is thought to be a similar order of magnitude to that exported to make musical instruments. The demand for musical instruments is fairly static but that for carvings growing with the tourism industry.
What is the problem and what should I do?
What are the main threats to mpingo? The main threats to mpingo are from uncontrolled logging and deforestation. It is estimated that 96% of timber felled in south-eastern Tanzania during 2004-5 was illegally felled. Since then the Tanzanian government has taken some steps to improve the situation although their impact is currently unclear. Yields tend to be lower in sawmills using illegal wood as the raw resource is less valuable to them. Although it is still a common tree in south-eastern Tanzania, if harvesting continues at its present rate it could become commercially extinct, following what has already happened in Kenya. See the conservation status of mpingo for more details
What is mpingo?
Mpingo is the Swahili name for Dalbergia melanoxylon, also called East African Blackwood. See the mpingo tree for more details
Where is mpingo found?
Mpingo grows from Senegal to Ethiopia down to South Africa. However it is only commercially harvested in Tanzania and Mozambique. See where mpingo grows for more details
Why focus on mpingo?
It is a high value timber species that is the national tree of Tanzania. Its export price ranges up to USD $18,000. If harvested by communities in a sustainable way it could provide a reliable long-term income, giving local people an economic incentive to conserve and protect their forests. It has the potential to be a flagship species for conservation. See why conserve mpingo for more details.
How large does the tree grow?
Mature trees are typically between 4.5m and 7.5m high, with an average girth of 1.2m. See the mpingo tree for more details
How long does it take to grow?
Harvestable size (i.e. girth of around 1m) is not reached until an estimated 70 to 100 years. See the mpingo tree for more details