Turning a common weed infestation into a business

April 30, 2013

An enterprising forester is building a business and creating jobs by harvesting bracken ferns from plantations and exporting them for the dinner tables of Asia ...
by Samora Chapman

Bracken Fern entrepreneur Lucky Sibambo, building a business and creating jobs.

The Common bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is found on all the world's continents except Antarctica and in all environments except deserts. The bracken is the world's oldest and most successful fern and has always been viewed by foresters and many others as not much more than a prolific weed that costs money to remove and adds to the fuel load. It is the only indigenous forest fern not protected by South African conservation law, and grows on forest margins and in open areas in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern and Southern Cape.

What many don't know is that the immature fronds, known as 'fiddlehead greens', are actually eaten as a vegetable in some parts of the world and are considered something of a delicacy in Asia and France, and amongst Native Americans. Fiddleheads have antioxidants, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6, and are high in iron and fibre.

Now an innovative forester, Lucky Sibambo, is capitalising on this untapped resource and pioneering the bracken fern industry in South Africa through his company MCB Operations.

Community empowerment
Lucky has a National Diploma in Forestry, and is studying towards a B. Tech degree. He has experience in silviculture, harvesting, forest management and renewable energy. However, his real passion is community-based forest enterprise development. So he left his career as a practicing forester to focus on the utilisation of non-timber forest products for rural forestry community empowerment and development.

While doing a forest and woodland ecology class at Stellenbosch University, Lucky discovered that the bracken fern was in fact a valuable resource and that there was a market for it in Asia. So he decided to base all his research on the fern, and secured funding from KLF for the pilot study, which was done in 2011.

In 2012, Lucky approached York Timbers with a business plan to harvest bracken ferns from their plantations in Sabie, process them and export them to Asia. York put their full support behind the project, funding the first year of implementation, providing production facilities for drying and processing the ferns, safety training for all Lucky's employees, and leadership training and business support for Lucky.

Last year, Lucky trained and employed a team of 30 people in the incubator phase of the project. "The harvesting and processing of the unfurled fronds is a delicate business and highly specialised," says Lucky. "The harvesting is all done by hand, so it is labour intensive. We carefully pack and transport the ferns to our processing plant where it is boiled, then dried and vacuum packed. A mistake at any point in the production chain could ruin the product."

Reducing fuel load
Although the harvested ferns regenerate, harvesting reduces the fire risk in the plantations by reducing the fuel load, so there is an additional benefit for the owners of the plantations.

Lucky believes that the business has massive potential. "Once my harvesting teams have gained the experience they need to manage a business, I will help them form co-operatives so that they can harvest and sell the product to MCB Operations. We want to expand to other parts of the province and country, and aim to create 250 jobs this year," said Lucky.

"York's involvement in the project is aimed at enterprise development and job creation through intensive mentoring and skills transfer, and empowering the development of a sustainable and profitable local business," says Kirsten Coetzee, Chief Human Capital Officer at York. "Whilst the project allows the company to meet its local enterprise development goals, the real benefit is the creation of sustainable jobs for the communities in the areas where we operate.

"The fact that Lucky is qualified within the forestry field, has given the management of York Timbers peace of mind," says Jackie Prinsloo, York's Community Development Manager. "We know that he will maintain best operating practices within our plantations, and that he has the heart to grow the business and create jobs."

The collaboration between Lucky's teams and York are managed in terms of the following:

  • Lucky's employees are inducted by York and are aware of the rules and regulations involved with working in the plantation, such as the prohibition of smoking, poaching and hunting.
  • The team undergoes safety training as part of the induction programme. They are expected to take care of the plantations they are working in.
  • Weekly fire duty registers are communicated to Lucky and his employees.
  • On days where the fire danger index (FDI) reaches orange or red, all work must stop and his employees must evacuate the plantations.
  • Lucky maintains constant contact with the district managers and foresters within the regions he operates.
  • Lucky provides formal monthly reports covering all aspects of his operation.

The future is looking bright for Lucky and his company, MCB Operations. The plan is to grow the business, harvest ferns from a wider area and develop more harvesting teams and team leaders across the province. This year, Lucky plans to visit Asia to broaden his export network and see the different facets of the industry at its source.

Lucky's energy is boundless: "My vision is to work with all the forestry companies in the industry that are committed to community social investment projects," he says. "I can train community beneficiaries on the harvesting, processing, drying and packaging of the fern, and provide the market for the product. I call this project a W2V (Weed To Value), because we are turning a weed into a valuable crop."

"York will continue to facilitate grant funding for Lucky as far as possible and continue to assist him with his sales strategy as well as facilitate network opportunities and business growth," says Jackie. "Along with this, he will receive mentoring, coaching and a range of skills training. Lucky is an enthusiastic and keen entrepreneur and his project has so much potential! We will support him the best we can."


harvest product
Workers collecting bracken fern fronds in Mpumalanga. Freshly harvested, delicious fern fronds!
fern1 customers
Above and right: harvested fern tips are processed, packed and shipped off to markets in Asia. Lucky’s Asian clients on a visit to South Africa: (from left to right) Lucky Sibambo (MCB founder), Mr Lee, Mr Shin, Mr Yoon, and Jacki Prinsloo (York's Community Development Manager).


Published in Feb 2013

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