First timber harvest for Ntuso Holdings

April 30, 2011

Effective teamwork between Sappi, the IDC and an emerging timber grower contributes to the success of a forestry project that serves as a model for BBBEE.

Ntuso Holdings' first harvest Ntuso Holdings' first harvest celebrations

Left to right: Kwezi Zimu, Thami Zimu and operations manager Bheki Mhlungu on the Ntuso Holdings estate.

Thami Zimu, Sappi field staff and IDC representatives during the site visit to celebrate the commencement of harvesting.

 

It's one thing to talk about all the good things one plans to do – it's quite another when one is able to report that a project has been implemented and it begins to bear fruit.

This is the happy situation that Sappi's Bulwer forestry team, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and farmer Thami Zimu find themselves in as the first timber harvest on the Ntuso Holdings farm commences.

Contractor Barry Woodroffe of Sani Logging moved his team onto the Ntuso farm recently to start harvesting 163 ha of seven-year-old eucalyptus, which is expected to produce around 24 000 tons of timber.

This event was a significant milestone for Thami Zimu, the Sappi team and IDC who have had the foresight and courage to set up this forestry project that has become a model for broad-based black economic empowerment as envisaged by the Forest Sector Charter.

The project originated in the early 2000s when Thami Zimu, a small-scale sugar and timber farmer from the South Coast, approached Sappi and said she wanted to become a commercial timber farmer, and could they help. The Sappi forestry team realised Thami's potential, and agreed to sell her Pierremont, a former cattle farm near Bulwer for which they had secured a planting permit.

Thami, a former nurse who only started farming in 2000, established Ntuso Project Holdings (Pty) Ltd, of which her family owns 70%, and a Workers' Trust the balance. IDC came on board with a R19 million low-interest loan over 14 years to Ntuso Holdings for the purposes of buying the farm, planting the trees and maintaining them until it could get into full rotation.

Sappi provided an initial start-up loan of R6 million, free seedlings and ongoing technical and management assistance. Sappi also provided a guaranteed market for the timber. Sappi's forestry team based in Bulwer has worked closely with Thami's own team, headed up by her son Kwezi Zimu and operations manager Bheki Mhlungu, who is also chairperson of the Ntuso Workers' Trust. The farm employs 22 people from neighbouring villages on a permanent basis to do daily maintenance around the farm and the full range of silviculture work, including fire protection.

The Sappi team also assisted Ntuso to get the farm FSC certified.

The farm is 2 500 ha in extent, of which 505 ha is planted to gum (mainly Nitens and a bit of Smithii) and 460 ha to pine. It has been extremely well laid out with wide open corridors along the riparian areas and patches of grassland and natural forest. Unfortunately, the pine has been badly damaged by hail, and there are plans to convert this area to gum (if and when the red tape can be sorted out).

Due to the excellent layout and good fire protection measures, the farm has not been damaged by fire in recent years.

The first harvest, expected to produce 24 000 tons, will be completed in September. Plans are to harvest another 50 000 tons over the next two years.

Harvesting contractor Sani Logging has a large team working on the Ntuso farm, including chainsaw operators and stackers, working under the supervision of harvesting manager Simon Khawula. Sani Logging uses a Bell 220B three-wheeler equipped with a Hyena Mark II head to de-limb and de-bark the tree lengths. The timber is then cross-cut to 2,4 metre lengths and stacked. The chainsaw operators and stackers work a single shift, while the Bell works two shifts a day.

Barry is happy with the performance of the Hyena. "If you maintain it properly, it is very reliable," he said. They maintain productivity of around 12 tons/hour on Ntuso farm.

He also has an excavator with the bigger Hyena Mark III head working on another site, and can bring it across to Ntuso to play catch-up if needed.

Sani Logging's contract includes transporting the timber to the railway siding, about 2,5 kms away, from where it is hauled by rail to the Saiccor mill.

At an informal function on the farm to mark the commencement of the first harvest, Thami thanked the project partners for their role in its success.

"I would like to thank Sappi because they trusted me," said Thami. "Also the IDC: I did not have resources but they were prepared to get into the game with us."

She said that Sappi's mentorship and 'tireless work' was behind the excellent maintenance of the farm, and that both Sappi and IDC had instilled strict financial discipline.

"We have to account for every cent we spend on the project – it's a very good discipline," said Thami.

The head of IDC's Wood and Paper business unit, Rentia van Tonder, said that the loan package they had developed for Ntuso Holdings served as a model for other community forestry projects.

"We learnt so much when we were structuring this loan," said Rentia.

She said that key factors in the success of the project to date had been the commitment from the owner, Thami, and the supporting role of the private sector partner, Sappi.

Challenges

Chris Nicholson of IDC said that one of the challenges facing Ntuso was the possibility that the branch rail line serving Bulwer would be closed down by Transnet. This, he said, would have a big impact on the costs of transporting the timber to Saiccor.

"We need support from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to keep the line open," he said.

Another challenge was getting the necessary permission to replant the pine areas damaged by hail to gum. He said replanting that area with gum would be in the farm's best interests because of the greater productivity that could be achieved, but that the process was "bureaucratically challenging".

Published in April 2011

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