Furniture factory utilises unwanted timber to create jobs

March 30, 2014

The Garden Route National Park boasts a furniture factory with a difference. Unmarketable gum trees left in clearfelled State plantations designated for conversion to natural vegetation are utilised for making furniture in a Government poverty relief project.
by Theo Stehle

farleigh furniture
The Lucas portable saw at Farleigh's wet mill.
Carel van der Merwe
Forest manager Carel van der Merwe with the solar kiln.

The Farleigh forest station, formerly part of the Forestry Department's infrastructure for the management of the southern Cape State indigenous forests, is bustling nowadays. The Station, which has been part of Garden Route National Park (GRNP) under SANParks management since 2006, has been expanded to accommodate a furniture factory, with wet mill, seasoning kiln, dry mill, storage facilities and administrative centre.

Carel van der Merwe, formerly estate manager for the Tsitsikamma indigenous forests when still managed by Forestry, is now the forest manager for this section of the GRNP. He is highly experienced in the harvesting, sawing and seasoning of indig- enous timber, and is on hand to give guidance and advice to the furniture project when required.

The furniture project is managed by Herman Jungbauer. Although his office is on the forest station, he is not attached to the park management, but is cluster manager of SANParks' Biodiversity Social Projects (BSP), of which the furniture project is a very important component.

I visited Herman in his office at Farleigh, where he explained to me what this project was all about. He told me that SANParks is the implementing agent for the BSP as part of the Extended Public Works Programmes (EPWPs) of which Working for Water and Working on Fire are a part. Funds are obtained largely from overseas donors, currently to the tune of R45 million p.a.

The Farleigh Eco-Furniture Factory (FEFF), being one of six in the country making use of alien invasive trees that are removed from areas where they are undesirable, began in 2011. It is a pilot of an EPWP, and an initiative of the Natural Resource Management Programme of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and SANParks. The operations are FSC certified.

The catalyst for this pilot project was commercial plantations being leased from the State by Cape Pine that were to be converted to land use ‘Conservation’. In terms of the lease agreement, Cape Pine has to rehabilitate the exit areas after clearfelling to an agreed condition, before they are handed over to SANParks to become part of the GRNP. The main raw timber resource for the project is unmarketable compartments and gum belts planted to an assortment of gum species in the past. These would have been felled to waste by Cape Pine in accordance with this agreement, if it hadn’t been for the opportunity it created for the BSP. Cape Pine has kindly agreed to make as much of this timber available as possible. Some of this timber is quite difficult to access.

Herman outlined the objectives of the FEFF:
• promote local employment;
• provide in-service training to empower disadvantaged local people;
• produce skilled people for the furniture industry;
• manufacture school desks for government schools, and other wood products by demand, from wood that would otherwise have been wasted; and
• contribute to the eradication of alien invasive vegetation.

All funding comes from Government’s EPWP (not from taxpayers), by which all expenditure, including wages and the capital outlay, is covered. Financially, the objective is to break even, with the income from the sales of the products off-setting the costs.

The total process, from harvesting of the timber to the end product, is undertaken by the project itself, employing 160 workers. Providing work for the local rural unemployed is an important aim of the project, and in this respect, it obviously serves its purpose admirably. “No unemployed person from the immediate area has an excuse for not working. If there are still unemployed persons around this area, it is because they don’t want to work. The project aims at providing jobs for all workless people in the area,” says Herman, who obviously takes great pride in the project.

“The factories have provided an opportunity to bring the unemployed into a temporary working environment, to obtain skills and work experience,” explained Nandi Mgwadlamba, Communications Manager for the Garden Route National Parks.

Not that the workers are well paid. Their wages are lower than the minimum wage as currently prescribed under the Basic Conditions of Employment (BCE) Act. Concern about this has been expressed by some local indigenous timber industry stakeholders and trade unions represent- ing the workers in the furniture industry. “But,” says Herman, “these people would have been without work, and moreover, they are being trained free of charge. The remuneration of these EPWP employees is not covered under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, but is separately provided for under regulations of the Department of Labour.”
From my visit to the factory, it was clear that the workers took pride in their work and seemed content. They were neatly dressed and equipped with PPE.

“The operations comply with health and safety standards. The factory has been audited by the Department of Labour for compliance. The factory is also in compliance with the Factories Act,” explained Herman.

The main factory is at Farleigh, with a satellite factory at the nearby Rheenendal township for converting pine timber to coffins, still in its early stage. The supply of pine is currently a problem due to the high demand for this timber in the southern Cape. The wet-mill operations are fairly low-key and low-tech, with the timber broken down into planks by two Lucas mobile circular saws, the seasoning taking place in a solar kiln. The kiln is basically an adapted plastic agricultural tunnel designed by the timber seasoning expert Dr Dieter Steinmann, which, unfortunately, due to the long drying time, is inadequate for the volumes that have to be dried. On the other hand, the dry mill/factory in which the school desks are turned out, boasts quite sophisticated machinery. The finished products are quite impressive, both in quality and appearance.

When I asked Herman to provide some production statistics, I wasn’t surprised at the figures he gave me. After all, the timber wasn’t economically harvest- able by Cape Pine. From the 800 m3 of gum logs harvested per month, the yield in planks was only 128 m3 (16%), with a recovery of 10-12% for the final product. Compare this with the 20% recovery for a finished piece of furniture in one of the most cost- effective local indigenous furniture factories.

However, it must be borne in mind that a good quality product is being manufactured locally from timber that would otherwise have gone to waste, and that it provides an alternative to cheap but inferior quality imports from the Far East.

Currently, about 80 desks are produced daily, with the aim of increasing production to 150. The contract price for the latest model desk to be supplied to the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is about R450. During the past six months, four of these eco-furniture factories across the country supplied 30 000 desks to the DBE. School desks supplied to Government constitute about 90% of the products manufactured at Farleigh. The other 10% are made up of a variety of products like memorial garden benches, plant boxes, chess tables, for some of which even waste wood is used in order to optimise the recovery of timber. From 2014 onwards, the factory will also supply a variety of wooden furniture and other products to rest camps in national parks.
“We are currently approaching the private timber processing sector locally with a view to establishing public-private partnerships. They have the infrastructure for more cost-effectively sawing, drying and further processing this

timber. We will supply the raw timber to the private mills”, says Len du Plessis, a former forester, now planning and implementation manager for the general manager of the GRNP. This has some distinct advantages. “It will give the local private sector a share in the available resource, promote value adding locally, and favour South Africa’s trade balance by counteracting imports,” he said.

It must, of course, be kept in mind that this resource is finite, and through the process of depletion, harvesting the supplies will eventually run out.

However, the Timber Buyers’ Association of the Southern Cape (TBA), which featured in the October issue of SA Forestry magazine in an article about the indigenous timber industry, has expressed serious reservations about some aspects of the factory, amongst others that it isn’t commercially viable, that it competes unfairly with the private sector, and that it does not conform to labour, environmental and land use laws.

Robin Clark, chairperson of the TBA and the George Employers’ Association, articulated the views of the local manufacturing industry as follows:
“My reaction to the establishment of factories by SANParks to manufacture furniture is totally negative. I cannot believe that a state/semi-state institution can be in competition with an already existing private sector manufacturing industry with surplus capacity and which is currently experiencing a serious crisis.

“The use of foreign donor funds to destroy job opportunities in the private sector by creating inefficient job opportunities at lower wage levels cannot in any way be justified. Government’s role in a democratic setup is to create an enabling environment for the functioning of private businesses. This attempt from SANParks cannot, in my opinion, be justified in any way whatsoever.”

A meeting between representatives of the various furniture manufacturers’ bargaining councils, the national Departments of Labour and Environment Affairs, SANParks and the EPWP to specifically discuss this dispute, has been scheduled. It will be attended by two local representatives, including Robin Clark.

Another member of the TBA, however, was more positive about the possibility of public-private partnerships, and offered some suggestions about the training aspect of the project:
• The quality and level of training of the workers is not what is needed by the industry. The employees of the eco-furniture factory should be equipped to be hands-on artisans, not as they currently are, “jacks of all trades, but masters of none”.
• There are no properly trained and qualified trainers to equip the employees with the needed skills. The FEFF staff has no experience or training in the processing of timber. A person(s) with applicable training and experience should be appointed at an appropriate level to oversee the work and provide the training.

All in all, I returned from my visit to the project with a positive impression. If the issues between the local timber industry and the BSP can be ironed out, it would hopefully lead to positive interaction and cooperation between them, and through that, benefit the local and even national socio-economic situation.

The Farleigh workshop where school desks are assembled.
farleigh furniture
Herman Jungbauer (right) with trainees busy making desk tops.
The current design of school desks produced at Farleigh.
Farleigh-manufactured desks at a local school.

*Published in Dec 2013

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