As Zanzibar Builds World’s Top Hybrid Tower, Africa Bets Big On Timber!

Billions of global investments are now being channeled into African reforestation as the global south turns to timber to construct the infrastructure of the future.

Mon 08 Jan 24


Africa is “betting on timber” as the continent turns to mass timber construction to meet a surge in demand for infrastructure.

The push to embrace mass timber is part of a multi-billion-dollar investment into African reforestation – driven by China, Europe, and most recently, the Middle East.

Last month, Wood Central reported that African and Middle Eastern developers were looking to cross-laminated timbers and bamboo to drive the development of future cities.

At the same time, plans are underway for a 48-metre timber observation tower to rise over Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, drawing inspiration from traditional Kenyan construction techniques and materials.

Now, plans are afoot for a new development known as Burj Zanzibar in Fumba Town, Zanzibar, which, if constructed (in 2026), will become the world’s tallest hybrid timber structure.

The 28-storey residential development, developed by German engineering firm CPS, is billed as Africa’s first “wooden high-rise” and will “supply safe and equitable homes for thousands of families in Tanzania and East Africa.”

It is part of a global push to substitute high-carbon building materials to make the construction industry greener and cleaner, with timber replacing steel and concrete in the future of zero-carbon buildings.  

“About 200 years ago, everyone was building with timber; then it shifted to cement, steel, and stones,” according to Karl Kirchmayer, co-founder and managing partner at ASC Impact. “Now people are going back, especially with modern housing.”

Last year, a UN-sanctioned report strongly supported substituting steel and concrete-based building products with timber, bamboo and biomass materials – footage courtesy of @PBSNewsHour.

And although “wood buildouts” are not mainstream, he said the African trajectory is “leading to a more timber-centric future.” This “buildout” has led CLT Toolbox, the innovative software company focused on making timber design simpler than concrete and steel, to open an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“By establishing our presence in Ethiopia, CLT Toolbox aims to become a catalyst for positive change,” according to Adam Jones, CLT Toolbox’s co-founder, who opened the office in July last year.

“We strive to make environmental contributions through making mass timber design accessible to all engineers while simultaneously creating economic opportunities within the Addis Ababa community.”

While the market for cross-laminated timber in Africa and the Middle East is still in its infancy, research published in April 2021 points to the growing potential for mass timber in the Ethiopian construction sector.

Cross Laminated Timber Market Wood Central 1.png

According to Energy Monitor, replacing energy-intensive building materials like steel, concrete, aluminium and glass with mass timber could prevent up to 100 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere by the end of the century.

For Mr Kirchmayer, hybrid housing units combining concrete and timber provide the most significant scope for growth “due to faster construction times.”

With vast lands conducive to tree growth and just 21% of the African continent covered by forest area, he said the region is “now ripe for reforestation initiatives that could support mass timber production and other carbon-based projects.”

“The best way to sequester carbon is by planting new forests, particularly across vast surfaces.” He said utilising these trees for timber means the carbon is sequestered in the buildings, replacing steel and cement. This carbon remains bound as long as the structure stands.”

Global investment in Africa is booming – with Australian-based New Forests – already raising $200 million towards a $500 million target to kick start mass timber and carbon-based forest projects across the continent.

African leaders and global policymakers gathered in Kenya in September for a climate summit to showcase the continent as a destination for carbon credits—footage courtesy of @France24_en.

In the United Arab Emirates, a carbon company backed by the Emiratee royal family is leasing millions of hectares of land across five African nations in the world’s most ambitious carbon offset program.

For Mr Kirchmayer, who is looking to raise €400 million as part of a 300,000-hectare reforestation project, the key is to look beyond just carbon offsetting and use reforestation to grow a domestic “inland” timber market to drive a value-added regional economy.

“So we want to produce the construction wood for the inland market,” he said before adding, “With new plantations and forests and sustainable forestry, you create not only the timber and sustainable construction material but also a lot of sequestration, substituting steel and cement.”

Timber buildings are a rising trend; the Burj Zanzibar, the tallest timber tower in the world, will be built in Zanzibar – footage courtesy of @FumbaTown.

According to Mr Kirchmayer, ASC Impact is integrating agriculture and carbon offset projects into its offerings to avoid pushback from governments apprehensive about allocating land solely for forestation.

“So we are planting for inland consumption … we are planting corn, soybeans, sunflowers and various other crops.”

“Communities and governments are much more open to investments in agriculture than to only carbon sequestration or reforestation projects. So we have not only the agricultural revenue but also the timber revenues after a very long period, and we are also selling carbon credits.” 

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Burj Zanzibar has attracted global attention for its use of mass timber construction in its Fumba Town in Zanzibar. (Phoot Credit: Fumba Town Instagram)

This model has resonated with investors, with Mr Kirchmayer noting that one of the critical challenges facing mass timber adoption in Africa is the existing regulatory framework, which often favours energy-intensive construction methods.

However, he noted that “progressive policy changes and increasing awareness of sustainable building practices” have paved the way for greater acceptance of mass timber. 

Early adopters, he said, “in countries like Kenya and South Africa are setting precedents, showcasing the feasibility and benefits of mass timber structures.”

“I know this is a cultural thing and a development thing in the way people think that higher quality construction is with concrete and cement.”


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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