Forestry with heart

September 17, 2014

As you cross the border from South Africa into Swaziland, there is a subtle shift in the atmosphere that is immediately apparent. It just feels a little bit more relaxed, there’s less tension in the air, the people seem to be more open and friendly, although the rolling green hills and scattered rural homesteads look similar to those back home.

Visiting Montigny Investments’ forestry operation at Nhlangano just across the border from Piet Retief, confirms these first impressions. Montigny Investments is a dynamic company on the move, rapidly expanding its timber resources and processing capacity and increasing its market share and turnover in leaps and bounds. Yet it has a unique approach that is people friendly and is well integrated into the social fabric of Swaziland, a relatively poor country with a big heart.

An aerial photo of Bulembu Village, Swaziland, where an old asbestos mine village has been turned into a community care programme and timber business.
Mashumi Shongwe and Coen Badenhorst of Montigny Investments.
A timber truck being loaded by hand... forestry work at Montigny is mainly manual operations.

Montigny Investments has been in the news lately as it is busy finalising the purchase of Sappi’s Usutu plantation in North East Swaziland for R1 billion. This will add 45 000 hectares of planted forest to its existing 6 000 hectares, and will push the company’s forecasted turnover from its 2013 level of R600 million to around the R1 billion mark.

Not bad for a family-owned business that opened its doors in 1997, supplying support timber to just one mine.

In truth, the origins of the business go further back, to 1970 when the Rijkenberg family moved to Swaziland from South Africa and purchased a 200ha mixed farm near Nhlangano. The family had been involved in the timber industry in Kwambonambi and so they grew some gum. Koos Rijkenberg established a small sawmill, sawing timber for the mines in South Africa.

When Koos’ eldest son, Neal, joined the family business after graduating from Cedara Agricultural College, he started building up the sawmill. Meanwhile, they had started purchasing more farms, and planting timber wherever the terrain and climate was suitable.

Multi-faceted timber business
Fast forward to 2014. Montigny Investments has become a multi-faceted timber business with 6 000ha of gum, pine and wattle in the south, west and north-east of Swaziland, and four sawmills at Nhlangano, Bhunya, Bulembu and Armagh. The purchase of Usutu will catapult the company into another level of business.

Montigny has two sister companies, NHR Investments and NHR Logistics. NHR Investments is a South African-registered trading company that handles all of the cross-border trade. NHR Logistics is a transport company hauling products from the mills in Swaziland to markets in South Africa and Mozambique.

Montigny Investments processes over 400 000 tons of timber a year, and value ads about 70% of that. Products include wet off saw and kiln or air-dried pine and saligna lumber, treated poles, droppers and laths, mining timber, chipboard, charcoal and a range of timber products such as flooring, ceiling boards, shelving, skirting, as well as manufactured doors, tables, chairs and bee hives. Timber unsuitable for any of the above products is sold to pulp markets in Richards Bay and Maputo. Almost half of their products are exported, mainly to South Africa.

SA Forestry magazine visited the sawmill at Nhlangano recently and quickly discovered that it would be more accurate to describe it as a ‘timber processing centre’ as it is much more than a sawmill. Value is added to the sawn timber exiting the four production lines at every opportunity, utilising every scrap of timber to produce a variety of products.

The recent addition of a board manufacturing plant at Nhlangano has further improved efficiencies and increased turnover. The plant uses 50% of the waste produced by the company’s sawmills, in line with company policy of maximising the utilisation of resources and wasting nothing.

The Nhlangano centre is a hive of activity and there is a constant stream of timber trucks of all shapes and sizes entering the yard to offload timber, much of it coming from local timber growers.

NHR’s manager for this operation and the surrounding plantations is Coen Badenhorst, a larger-than-life gentleman with a cowboy hat and a booming laugh. One minute he can be peering into a piece of troublesome equipment in the sawmill and giving the maintenance team some guidance, and the next he’ll be out in the plantation discussing harvesting with a local contractor in fluent Seswati.

He tells me that most of the decent size pine and eucalyptus are utilised in the company’s sawmills/processing centres, while the wattle bark is sold to the factory at Iswepe across the border, and the timber to Richards Bay or Maputo.

Silviculture and harvesting work is mainly done by locally based contractors, all of it being motor-manual. Contrary to the way it is done in South Africa, the contract sizes are relatively small to accommodate local capacity.
NHR Logistics runs a fleet of 12 trucks to deliver product to customers.

“We do everything differently here,” comments Coen, “we want to maximise our resources and we always make a plan.”

Not so long ago, there was a severe shortage of creosote, so the Montigny team used CCA and added some of their own ingredients to come up with a treated pole product that was so good, their customers want them to carry on producing it. This is typical of Montigny’s approach.

Montigny’s plantations are FSC-certified and environmental impacts are kept to a minimum.

Social engagement
The company has a comprehensive social engagement strategy that is an integral part of the business. The company’s Community Relations Officer is Mashumi Shongwe, a former policeman and highly respected member of the community.

He tells me that there are some 100 households living on company land, comprising over 1 000 people. The company has a written contract with each and every household, which sets out clearly the roles and responsibilities of each party. The Farm Dwellers Act of 1982 governs this relationship.

Farm dwellers are allocated land on the plantation that they can use to plant crops, and they’re allowed to keep cattle as long as they’re kept out of recently planted compartments. The company employs cattle guards in the plantations to keep watch.

Coen tells me that when he has harvested a neighbouring compartment, he allows farm dwellers in to collect firewood before it is burnt and re-planted.

There is a special Farm Dwellers Tribunal that settles disputes that inevitably arise from time to time. These hearings are held in the Regional Administrator’s office and are chaired by the Regional Secretary, who reports to the King of Swaziland.

“It’s very fair and it works,” states Mashumi. It is also free, a service provided by government.

Should the Regional Tribunal fail to find a solution, the matter will be referred to the National Tribunal chaired by the Minister of Agriculture.

Relationships between the company and neighbouring communities are also carefully structured to ensure fairness and to help keep the peace. Regular meetings are held with local communities, and the local chiefs are involved.

Local communities have permission to collect firewood in designated areas and are allowed to collect building poles under supervision.

The company is very involved in sponsoring the local football teams, and uses the opportunity as a platform to promote fire awareness and a spirit of friendly co-operation.

Beekeeping encouraged
Beekeeping is encouraged, and the company even supplies farm dwellers with timber to make their own boxes on request. The aim of this programme is to encourage self-reliance, but also to demonstrate the correct and safe way to keep bees so as to reduce the number of bee-related fires.

The company also helps and encourages community members and farm dwellers to look after each other, particularly the old and poor.

“We have a house building programme in which we help communities to build homes for the elderly or people too poor to do it themselves,” explains Mashumi.

Coen tells me that they haven’t had any big fires in the last few years, and that the community engagement programme is working in that regard. Fire awareness and rules around use of fire forms part of the contracts with farm dweller households.

Much of the driving force behind Montigny’s growth, as well as its community ethic, is Neal Rijkenberg, eldest son of Koos. He believes that the company has a duty to support local communities in need, and there is a lot of need in Swaziland.

Neal is one of the founders of Bulembu Village, a pioneering community project that focuses on community care and community enterprise. The village was established by a British-owned asbestos mining company and was once a thriving community of 10 000 people. However, when the mine – which was the principle source of employment – closed its doors, the community fell on hard times.

This was exacerbated by the HIV pandemic, which has swept across the country impacting nearly every family in Swaziland. A recent estimate of the number of Swazi citizens living with AIDS is 38% – the highest infection rate in the world.

The loss of so many young parents to HIV has undermined traditional family structures, and there are an estimated 120 000 orphaned and vulnerable children in Swaziland (15% of the total population) who have limited or no access to formal social support and have been left to fend for themselves.

Add to all this the fact that almost 78% of Swazis live below the poverty line, with two thirds living on less than $1 a day, and you have a national crisis.

In response to this scenario, Montigny Investments has joined forces with Canadian Ministries to establish the Bulembu Village project, which is transforming the lives of its inhabitants. The transformation is happening through two complimentary strategies – Community Care and Community Enterprise. The sustainability of Bulembu, the directors of the project say, depends equally on the success of both.

The Community Care programmes are busy restoring basic social services to the community including a health clinic, schools, churches, training centres, and other community organisations.

One of these is a care programme that places over 300 orphaned and vulnerable children in refurbished homes with a caregiver and up to five other children.

It is hoped that these new families are the thread that will restore the social fabric of a nation on the verge of collapse due to the AIDS pandemic. The target is to be able to care for 2 000 orphans by 2020.

Bulembu leadership has identified many opportunities to build innovative, sustainable, and profitable businesses in the community. Each enterprise is formally a division of the larger charity, with the profits from each enterprise flowing into Bulembu’s Sustainability Fund for the advancement of the vision.

Bulembu’s first macro-enterprise, Bulembu Timber, was launched in 2006. It employs over 200 community members and is the town’s largest community enterprise.

Bulembu Timber’s raw material is sourced from adjacent properties. This allows on-site activities to be focused on the clean-up, harvesting and re-establishing of 900 hectares of local eucalyptus forests, as well as the production of planks and charcoal for sale in Swaziland and South Africa.

Bulembu Timber’s FSC certification increases market access and ensures Bulembu’s commitment to environmental stewardship standards, which include minimising the environmental impact of logging activities, as well as developing the socio-economic situation of forest workers and local communities.

Bulembu Timber is a core enterprise in the community and contributed $400 000 of profits into Bulembu’s Community Care projects over the past year.

Moving up a gear
Meanwhile, at Montigny Investments, the steady growth of the business that has been happening over the past few years is about to move up another gear. The Usutu purchase is expected to be finalised soon, giving Montigny access to a lot more timber, although the company has already been utilising some of the Usutu timber in its processing centres. Neal said that Usutu timber production has been constrained as a result of the massive fire that swept through the plantation in 2008 and the rehabilitation work that followed the fire, but that timber production from the plantations will start increasing again from 2015.

But there is little chance that success and growth will create a gap between the business and the people of Swaziland. It remains a family business with strong values, and the leadership team is committed to making a difference in the wider community, of which it is an integral part. Neal’s father, Koos is semi-retired and still involved in the business, and his younger brother, Ward, is CEO. The family ethos goes further too. Coen’s son, Boesman is the marketing manager, and many members of staff have strong family links to each other and to the Rijkenbergs.

Swaziland is that kind of place – people stick together and look out for each other.

Neal (right) and Ward Rijkenberg... taking Montigny Investments to new heights.
Contractors at work in one of Montigny’s plantations in Swaziland.
Coen Badenhorst and one of his harvesting contractors in discussion.
Local entrepreneurs manufacturing bee boxes from waste wood at Nhlangano sawmill.
Finished bee boxes.
Air drying timber at Nhlangano.

*Published in June 2014

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Harald Schirge
Harald Schirge
4 years ago

Looks Good
Could be worth while looking into for Investment,to Bye SHARES and job opportunities.

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