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Transplanting knowledge: Graduate student’s goal is to help grow forest industry in Africa

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From an early age, Joshua Uzu understood the connection between economics and natural resources.

Growing up in an oil-rich portion of Southern Nigeria, Uzu witnessed the effects drilling had on the land where he lived. Natural resources were a commodity, but also something that needed to be managed for future generations. As an undergraduate student at the University of Lagos, he realized that the one-sided narrative about conservation needed to change, better connecting the land with the economics that, invariably, govern it.

“We talked about conservation, but the economic part of natural resources was kind of excluded. And that made me want to go for my master’s degree,” said Uzu. “And then I looked at natural resources in my country, especially the forest resources, and how they were being managed—and they were not being sustainably managed, nor were they being managed from an economic point of view. Everything seemed wasteful—very, very wasteful.” 

Now a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Uzu has grown in his understanding of what makes a country's forestry sector successful. He is studying forest economics and finance at the UGA Langdale Center for Forest Business with plans to work with an American timber investment management organization after graduation.

Eventually, his goal is to return to Nigeria and contribute significantly to a better future for forestry there. But not before learning all he can from the U.S. Southeast, a world leader in the timber markets.

In Nigeria, illegal logging is widespread. This not only causes communities to lose money—many forests are publicly owned—but it also makes it difficult for foreign investors to commit to the country. Official plans for logging aren’t followed, said Uzu, and through underground systems of bribes and timber sales, trees are harvested in secret and sold far below market rates.

Once Uzu realized this, he began researching it. Not all countries in Africa experienced this issue, although it could be found in most parts of the continent. In nearby Ghana, there was a conscious effort to reverse the negative trend of deforestation, boost plantation forestry, and attract foreign investment into the country’s forest sector. Uzu wanted the same for Nigeria.

First, he decided he wanted to learn more about finance.

“Before applying for my Ph.D., I decided to take a little detour and work for KPMG Nigeria,” he said. Nigeria was grappling with declining oil revenue and the government had made increasing its tax revenue a priority. At the same time, KPMG Nigeria was accepting applications for graduate trainees into its tax division. It was a perfect opportunity, and the firm had an amazing learning environment, said Uzu. “I went to the tax deal advisory, mergers and acquisition unit, and I worked on some projects with partner firms in the United States, Europe, and across Africa. I did that for four years, and it was during my time at KPMG Nigeria that I submitted my application to the University of Georgia.”

He said he was attracted to the strength of the forest business program, which partners with UGA’s Terry College of Business to equip students the skills to become leaders in all areas of forest business. Graduates work as analysts, consultants and with investment firms, and Uzu plans to gain several years of experience in the industry before returning to his home country.

“My plan is to work for a timber investment management organization to understand what investors are looking out for, and then help to set that up in Africa,” he said. “I’m not just thinking about my country, but about the entirety of Africa. I want to help set up the structure and attract investors.”

“The results may not come out for the next 40 or 50 years,” he added, “but I want to help lay that foundation to create a distinct forestry industry in Africa.”

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