Self-taught timber farmer wins NCT Award

August 31, 2009

Muntu Zulu, who grows timber on 69 hectares on tribal land in Zululand, is a self-taught timber farmer and entrepreneur. Muntu took over farming operations from his father, who planted the land to rice and sugar cane, and gradually converted to timber.

by Dumisane Shelembe

Muntu on his timber farm in Zululand Muntu with a chainsaw operator
Muntu Zulu on his timber farm in Zululand. The harvesting team.
Muntu in the school he built Muntu's homestead
Muntu Zulu (right) with Jabulani Mkhize, the principal of Mabuyeni Secondary School in Emabuyeni. The Zulu homestead.


 According to Muntu, the chief of KwaDube offered his father the land because the chief believed that he was a hard-working man with an interest in agriculture who would use it productively. When his father passed away in 2000, Muntu took over the land as he was the only male in the family.

"My father was a diligent man, a rice and sugarcane grower who strongly believed in trade. He motivated me to be a farmer," Muntu said.

Muntu said that his relationship with NCT started in the early 80's when he used to supply timber as a non-member. However, due to a good working relationship that he developed with the co-op and realising satisfying profits from timber sales, he decided to become a full-time member in 2005.

Muntu said he started with only six hectares of timber. He decided to switch from sugar because of the extensive labour demands, and so whenever he harvested sugar he would re-plant timber. He established the forestry plantation one block at a time, which meant that his farm was soon working in rotation.

"I converted to tree farming because trees bring better returns compared to sugarcane, and do not demand extensive labour," said Muntu. "I had little knowledge or experience about growing trees when I started, so realising my incompetence in forestry, I sought help and advice in order to improve and fine-tune my skills."

He visited various forestry businesses to learn as much as he could, and attended field days and workshops hosted by growers like Sappi and Mondi where he gained technical knowledge. He used his newly acquired skills with diligence and steadily improved his plantations.

All of Muntu's 69 hectares are planted to eucalyptus. He grows the hybrid clones, E. grandis x E. urophylla, which he buys from Enseleni Nursery. His plantation is divided into three blocks, situated a short distance apart. These compartments are at Mabuyeni, Mpola and Endindima, all within the KwaDube Tribal Authority.

Silviculture practices

Just by looking at Muntu's plantations you can see that he puts in calculated effort to stay on top of his game. The tree rows in his plantations are in an excellent straight line and the required spacing of 3 x 2 m is clearly adhered to, which helps him during harvesting periods.

Since the land was previously planted to sugar cane, his own silviculture team loosens the soil before planting with a pick to ensure effective rooting depth and proper tree growth.

He has cleared small internal fire breaks every 100 m inside his compartments by raking and clearing the brush. This would slow down a fire if it got into the compartments. A chemical spray is used to create five-metre wide external firebreaks.

Fortunately, the Endindima plantation is surrounded by a wetland, which also serves as a natural firebreak and could provide an easy access to water in case there's a fire outbreak. The Emabuyeni block is also close to a river. The wetlands are well preserved and cleared of any timber, and only indigenous trees grow in there.

Muntu says that he has never experienced a fire in his plantations.

Harvesting and transportationHarvesting, felling, stripping, cross-cutting and loading are done manually, and all of this work is contracted out. He pays the contractor according to tons harvested.

"I have a binding agreement with my contractor and a mutual friendship which makes it pleasant to work together," Muntu said.

NCT's Small Tree Farmer of the Year

Muntu won NCT's Small Farmer of the Year award at their recent AGM. The NCT judges acknowledged Muntu for his excellent managerial skills and his committed supply to the co-op.

His excellent silviculture and environmental practices, well-planned roads and firebreaks for the plantations were key criteria that impressed the judges.

The transportation of timber to the mills is not costly for Muntu. Firstly, his excellent network of roads provides easy access to the plantations. He owns a 20-ton truck which saves the costs of hiring transport, and the mill is only 35 km away.

His workforce consists of 14 full-time workers who ensure the proper maintenance of the plantations.

As a member of NCT he says he enjoys a number of benefits: NCT offers him easy access to the markets and offers him seedlings through a project regeneration scheme which he pays off out of profits over two years. The co-op also provides him with technical knowledge and the latest information about timber farming practices.

In addition to his timber farm, Muntu has a taxi business that ensures sustenance for his family. His three taxis travel between Richards Bay to the local surrounding areas, such as Eskhawini and others. With standard six education only, Muntu said that it is sufficient to enable him to manage his business finances on his own.

Muntu also helps his community in good spirit. In 1993 he built seven classrooms at Mabuyeni Secondary School with his own money.

"Building a school was an investment for me. But later on, the government took over the ownership of the school and refunded me 50% of the money I spent building it," Muntu said.

He said that he has not escaped the impact of the current economic conditions. "The challenge is that NCT has reduced orders due to the global economic crisis. I have too much timber to harvest but I can only harvest and sell a little because of the reduced order allocations," Muntu said.

One benefit of this is that it allows his timber to grow for longer, which means it will bear better returns in the future.

"I watch my plantations closely. I designed my plantations with common sense and the little skill that I have acquired, but the passion for forestry motivates me to do all these things," Muntu said.

Published in July/August 2009

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