Umgano Sawmill taking shape

September 20, 2014

The Mabandla community of southern KwaZulu-Natal, one of the pioneers of community-owned forestry in South Africa, is taking their timber business to the next level with the establishment of a sawmilling business known as the Umgano Timber Company (Pty) Ltd.

Sawmill manager Dave Wigley and Mayford Jaca, Mabandla Community Trust Chairman, at the Umgano Timbers sawmill site.

Construction of the sawmill has already started on a site adjacent to the plantation established by the Mabandla Community Trust in 1998.

Thanks to the long-term vision of the Mabandla Trust members and Peter Nixon and Themba Radebe of Rural Forest Management (who provide technical and management support to the Trust’s forestry business) some 450 ha of pine was planted on a sawlog rotation during the plantation establishment phase. This pine is now due for second thinnings, and it is this timber that will supply the sawmill’s raw material and makes the venture possible.

Umsonti Community Forestry NPO (Umsonti), a newly formed Section 21 company focusing on community development, has established a strategic partnership with the Mabandla Community Trust in Umgano Timbers. Umsonti’s directors are forestry and development specialists, some of whom have been involved in the Umgano project since the beginning. They are Peter Nixon, Themba Radebe, James Ballantyne, Mike Howard, Jeanette Clarke and Ilan Lax.

Umsonti, a not-for-profit company, successfully secured a grant from the Vumelana Advisory Fund to develop the sawmill business plan and bring the project to the point of bankability. Both the Mabandla Community Trust and Umsonti have invested capital in the venture, and the IDC came on board with a supporting loan. Construction has already begun, and second-hand sawmilling equipment has been purchased from Charles Anderson of Patula Products in Donnybrook. This includes a Woodmizer breakdown saw, a multi-rip saw, cross-cut saw and a bandsaw.

The Pine thinnings from the Mabandla plantation will supply the mill’s raw material needs for the first three years – thereafter clearfelling will begin so the flow of timber will increase going forward. Plans are in place to plant an additional 200ha of pine to secure the mill’s future raw material supply and allow for expansion of the business, according to Peter Nixon.

The initial production target for the sawmill is 150 cubic metres per month. A pallet mill will produce another 50 cubic metres/month. The sawn timber will be supplied wet-off-saw to local markets, and there are plans to value add on site. The mill will employ 17 people recruited from the Mabandla community and will be managed by local entrepreneur, Dave Wigley.

The power for the sawmill will be supplied initially by a diesel generator, but plans are in place to generate energy on site using solid waste, solar and wind-power (there is no Eskom power at the site).

Self-reliance is one of the key objectives of the business. Timber used in the construction of the Sawmill buildings is sourced from the Mabandla plantation and is treated on site.

According to James Ballantyne, Umsonti was established specifically to assist communities to address poverty and create jobs through the development of sustainable forestry and related businesses. Umgano Timbers is its first major project.

The Mabandla community forestry operation is the foundation of what has become known as the Umgano Project. It was well supported by a strong traditional leadership from the outset and created a platform for further development that now includes the sawmill, a land care programme, a cattle breeding business and conservation initiatives. A strategic partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has seen the establishment of a 1 500ha nature reserve on Mabandla community land, which will provide a platform for eco-tourism initiatives.

The forestry, which is FSC-certified, provides an annual turnover of R12 million, and 100 full-time and another 30 part-time jobs for Mabandla community members. The plantation comprises some 850ha of eucalyptus in addition to the 450ha of pine. The Eucalyptus is supplied to Sappi Saiccor as well as the transmission pole market.

The Mabandla Community Trust has a majority shareholding in all businesses operating on the project land, in order to generate funds to satisfy the main objective of social and economic development of the greater community.

The business model focuses on entering into joint ventures with businesses or organisations able to offer a high degree of expertise, experience and business skills to ensure the success of the business ventures.

The first time SA Forestry magazine reported on the Mabandla Forestry Business was in its May/June 2008 issue. Mayford Jaca (who is still actively involved as the Trust Chairman) commented then (with obvious pride): “This plantation is like our own goldmine. There was nothing here before, but now we have work for our people”. The Umgano Timbers sawmill is the next phase in strengthening this already stable community forestry project.

Umsonto directors (left to right) Ilan Lax, Peter Nixon, Themba Radebe, Jeanette Clarke, James Ballantyne and Mike Howard.
Mabandla community member Zweli Baleni and James Ballantyne with a log cabin built using Umgano timber. The cabins are being developed by the Umgano Timbers team to be used in a community-owned eco-tourism project.


*Published in June 2014

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram