A woodlot of whistling pine trees in Haller park

Can re-wilding cleanse the African cement industry? A Kenyan firm is giving it a try

Albert Musando’s job description is not one you would expect to find in a cement manufacturing firm.

In an industry with an environment marred with smoke, dust and noise from excavating and manufacturing machinery, the 46-year-old Musando, who lives in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa, spends 90% of his time working with flora and fauna.

Musando works at the Bamburi Cement factory, a Kenyan subsidiary of the world’s largest cement manufacturer Lafarge Holcim, as its ecosystem education and restoration manager.

So how did Musando’s department come into existence in an industry that has been identified as one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing sector?

In 1971, 15 years after the firm had started the excavation and conversion of coral limestone into cement, Swiss environmentalist Dr. Rene Haller started the process to restore 75 acres of what was once part of Africa’s largest coastal forest belt. The area had been degraded to a wasteland quarry following extensive mining and dumping activities by the factory.

However, Dr. Haller would soon realize the work ahead was rife with challenges. 

Though the whistling pine thrived well, its leaves posed a danger to the recovering ecosystem due to their slow biodegrading nature that limited the tree’s coexistence with other species. Hence, Dr. Haller introduced the Red-legged Fire-Millipedes (Aphistogoniulus corallipes), which fed on the whistling pine leaves and whose droppings produced a composting manure, paving the way for the thriving of other species.

Currently, approximately 325 hectares of wasteland quarry have been re-wilded and turned into a park boasting of wildlife such as giraffes, rhinos, Aldabra giant tortoises, crocodiles, Oryx’s and elands. Teeming with biodiversity, the former wasteland is now Haller Park, aptly named after its founder.

Haller’s legacy has continued on as a company tradition hence the existence of Musando’s department in the factory.

Cement manufacturers have often been blamed over their contribution to global warming. Bamburi cement factory produces between 800,000 and 1.1 million tones of cement annually; sustainable construction firm Rammed Earth Consulting estimates that 1.25 tons of carbon dioxide are produced for every ton of cement manufacturing. 

According to Carbon Brief, the global cement manufacturing industry was responsible for 8% of all the carbon dioxide emissions in 2016 and 2015, slightly behind the US and China, two of the world’s most emitting countries.

Though African countries do not feature among the countries that produce the highest amount of cement, experts predict the demand in Africa is likely to rise more than four times over the next 40 years owing to a projected increase in infrastructure projects.

A 2018 report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) predicts that cemented floor area in Africa is likely to rise to 88 billion m2 by 2060 from the current 28 billion m2.

Cement-related emissions are expected to rise by 260% in 2050, putting in jeopardy a 2030 target by the signatories of the Paris Climate Change agreement to reduce emissions by 40%.

Alberto Musando at a quarry where he is about to begin rewilding works.

Tree planting and re-wilding have often been cited as the cheapest method to fight climate change, due to the ability of tropical and mangrove forests to act as carbon sinks.

Even though Bamburi cement factory claims they have not carried out any study to determine the amount of carbon their restored forests have trapped, and whether it’s equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide they have emitted, experts feel planting trees and rewilding is one of the ways the cement manufacturing industry can be made sustainable.

Over the past year, climate activists have turned their attention to the cement manufacturing sector.

Last year, six extinction rebellion protestors were arrested after they blocked the entrance to a London concrete factory protesting against the cement production industry's disregard to the environment.

Musando, however, feels that the industry must learn to balance their production with the environment.

“In sustainable development, economy, ecology and society must work hand in hand, which I think is a critical aspect [of prioritizing the environment] that companies fail to identify [in their practices],” Musando says.