Business is steaming ahead for UCL in the KZN midlands, providing hope to its shareholders and a continued livelihood to workers and small-scale growers in the surrounding community despite the challenges of the global COVID-19 epidemic.
Story and video by Samora Chapman
“I’ve been at work every day during lockdown,” says UCL Grower Liaison Manager Friedel Eggers, with the characteristic spark in his voice. “We’re in a very fortunate position, our sugar mill is running, our extract factory is steaming ahead and NCT is taking all our timber this season.”
UCL was established in 1924 and has grown from a wattle bark milling company to a large scale enterprise specialising in the manufacture of wattle tannin extracts, sugar and pine lumber. In addition, the company operates 6500 hectares of farmland and runs a Trading division for the supply of agricultural input materials. UCL’s operations primarily serve the interests of its raw material suppliers who are also the company’s shareholders.
The Coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges to the business, but the ability to keep the majority of operations going has been a crucial lifeline… largely due to the diversity of the business under the UCL umbrella.
“We’ve been able to employ all our workers at the wattle extract factory,” explains Friedel, “and we communicated with the small growers to keep harvesting and supplying us with bark.”
Friedel made sure the factory was up to speed with all the necessary health and safety precautions and he approached a nearby old aged home to produce homemade masks. “We’ve had 150 masks made up and we give a free mask to every driver that delivers bark,” he said enthusiastically.
UCL produces a comprehensive line of products, ranging from speciality leather tanning powders to a range of resin products used in the manufacture of adhesives for particle board, plywood and cardboard applications. The vast majority of wattle extract products are exported to Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia.
The extract market has slowed to 50% of usual turnover, but Friedel is happy to build up stock for the winter months as the bark harvesting season closes end of May. The season opens again in October, weather permitting.
Friedel reported that NCT is taking all their timber this season, despite concerns earlier in the year about not being able to market the timber in light of the global crisis….
“I must commend NCT for expanding the timber market in these difficult times,” comments Friedel. “A shipment of timber just went out to a new client in China last week, which is brilliant news.”
Unfortunately UCL’s pine sawmill is battling, with all the timber retail outlets being closed during lockdown. “We are trying to keep our workers busy but there is no income,” he admitted. “Luckily the sugar mill is running, because it’s classified as essential service so we have a lot to be grateful for.”
UCL first ventured into sugar and molasses manufacturing in the 1950s, to supplement the business during the downtime in the winter months. It is the diverse nature of the business and the strong relationship with suppliers that has enabled it to survive the rocky road.
“My only worry is what happens if the virus get’s into the factories,” adds Friedel, “but we are taking all the necessary health precautions to help protect our workers and staff.”
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