Forestry at the heart of Malawi community project

Tafika volunteer, Major, who manages the nursery, has managed grow 9,000 seedlings this year.

Small African Community Based Organisations struggle with creating a sustainable financial base. Here is how Tafika Youth Organisation of Malawi developed an innovative, synergistic, forestry approach to solving this problem while at the same time meeting their community’s needs.

Tafika were new to forestry and took advice from the Malawi Department of Forests, Chinteche based, Ripple Africa and, via their link with Scotland Malawi Partnership, UK based forestry expert Andrew Heald. They planted a 30-acre community forest with fast growing pine trees (Pinus oocapa). These trees take about 12-15 years to grow to maturity and will be harvested two acres at a time generating around $70 000 to $100,000 a year. The trees coppice so the forest is always re-growing.

Pinus oocapa seedlings ready for planting out.

With widespread deforestation and an exploding population (Malawi’s population doubled in the last 20 years) the local community desperately need quality timber for building and roofing houses and they also need firewood as almost all Malawians are still forced to cook with wood. This commercial forest helps fulfil local demand and educates the community on the value of forestry.

Tafika Agricultural Manager Malumbo Muntali stands next to one of the 14,000 2-year-old trees already in the Tafika forest.

To pay for the land Tafika asked investors to lend them $28,000 in return for getting fully grown trees in 12-15 years’ time, the more money the investor gave the more trees they will receive in future. In this way Tafika didn’t need to have its own capital to start the project. Tafika volunteers cleared the land, created a tree nursery next to the Tafika Office and grew and planted the seedlings in order to keep costs down.
Trees need a lot of looking after in the first two years of life and a large forest also needs security to make sure the trees are not stolen or set on fire. Tafika didn’t have the cash to pay for labourers or security guards for 12-15 years while they waited for their trees to grow. To solve this they worked with Mzuzu based agribusiness MTF who provided training and $18,000 of funding for three polytunnel greenhouses. US based water NGO, Formidable Joy, contributed by provided funding for a borehole to be built at the site.

Tafika Director Shupo Kumwenda with one of the greenhouses being erected by MTF.

The greenhouses are owned by Tafika but each greenhouse is managed by a team of five women. Each woman works 2-4 hours a week in the greenhouse growing Grade A tomatoes, with each greenhouse producing two crops a year. MTF signed a distribution deal with Tafika and come to the greenhouses to buy all the tomatoes the women produce, at a fixed rate. Tafika reserve some of the revenue to pay for the guard and to build a fund for maintenance. Each woman involved will make around $4-500 a year from their share of the tomato sales.

A-grade tomatoes ready for market.

In return for being given this opportunity the women agreed to give up 2-3 hours a week to weed and trim trees in the forest. In this way Tafika has created a sustainable, zero cost mechanism to maintain their forest, while at the same time providing 15 women with sustainable livelihoods. One of Tafika’s other project partners (ZMCP) liked the plan so much they provided $3,000 to fund a fourth greenhouse and Tafika successfully applied for a sensitive development loan from NGO Lend with Care to build a fifth greenhouse.

Tafika plan to use surplus income from these five greenhouses to save to buy another, and have worked out they have room for 10 greenhouses on the site. This will eventually provide 50 women with a sustainable income, while at the same time ensuring the Tafika forest is well maintained.

The first group of women to benefit from growing tomatoes in a greenhouse.

Commented Tafika’s Director, Shupo Kumwenda: “We are so happy with our forest project, not only will this be a massive benefit to our community in years to come, but right now our youth volunteers have started to understand the value of trees not only to the local environment but also in terms of what their future value can bring to the community. We want to thank our partners for their efforts, we can see our future right here now.”

Kevin Simpson from MTF, said: "Tafika are showing a great way forward for Community Organisations in Malawi. We are delighted to work with them because they share our vision to see Malawians empowered to earn their own living and secure a sustainable future for themselves. This kind of long-term thinking and careful investment is exactly what Malawi needs."

Tomatoes provide much needed cash flow for the community forestry project.

Formidable Joy, a U.S.-based water NGO drilled a new borehole for the project, complemented by the installation of a solar pump by Malawi Fruits. The NGO has drilled 20 new boreholes and repaired nine pumps in schools, villages, and health centres within Tafika's catchment area.

In 2023, Formidable Joy further contributed by funding a district-wide Cholera educational outreach campaign led by Tafika, which included the distribution of preventative supplies during the deadliest Cholera outbreak in the history of the country.

For more info contact: Mick James

Local labour carrier on the move.

Phillip Mpangela – guardian of the KwaMbo forests

Phillip Mpangela (right) and Muzi Sibiya discussing forestry business.

Story and photos: Samora Chapman

Phillip Mpangela has been growing trees in KwaMbonambi, northern KwaZulu-Natal, for 25 years. He started working in the family forests alongside his father in 1997, immediately after finishing high school. Over the years he took over the maintenance of the woodlots and gradually acquired and planted all of the family land belonging to his siblings. Today he manages over 30 hectares of land – all stocked with carefully maintained Eucalyptus trees, which grow tall and strong in the sandy white soil of his ancestors.

“Our lives are tied to the animals and the earth,” says Phillip as he looks out on his timber farm. He is joined by Muzi Sibiya from Khulanathi Forestry and the two foresters take a walk to a newly planted compartment to check on the progress of the young trees. It’s a hot spring afternoon in Zululand – the homestead is surrounded by fields of maize and a noisy flock of goats scatter into a grassland nearby to graze.

The newly planted area is well fenced to protect it from livestock, and the seedlings are growing strong under the watchful eye of Phillip, the guardian of the forests.

Khulanathi Forestry supply both the seedlings and the market access for Phillip’s business, a vital partnership that supports the small grower through all the phases of forestry. The seedlings are sponsored by Mondi Zimele, Khulanathi’s strategic partner in empowering small-scale timber growers in the region. Mondi Zimele supplies 500 000 seedlings to small growers in the region every year.

Phillip Mpangela passes on some insights into forestry to the next generation.

“My father instilled in me a passion for the land,” reflects Phillip. “I wish to do the same for my children. This business will be passed on to them … but my hope is that they will do more skilled work and be able to employ people to manage the day-today running of the plantations.”

Phillip hires up to 20 local people when he is harvesting and 10-15 people when he is doing other work like planting, maintenance and fire break preparation. He recently bought his own labour carrier and three chainsaws.

Muzi Sibiya assists with timber orders as well as procuring timber transport to either the Khulanathi depot in KwaMbonambi, or directly to the Mondi Mill in Richards Bay. “Timber transport is a challenge because of the high cost … but at the same time it is good for others to have jobs,” comments Phillip.

Khulanathi also offers technical skills transfer through field days and ongoing mentorship on the business and operational aspects of forestry.

Muzi Sibiya uses his bike to get around on his weekly visits to the small-scale growers he works with in the region.

“The relationship with Khulanathi has been productive,” says Phillip as he sits on a log-stack in the shade to escape the blazing afternoon sun. “Muzi came to check this site and approve the land … makes sure that I’m not planting too close to the watercourse. All the support goes a long way – the seedlings, the market for the timber, the advice is all very valuable. Forestry is so important to life in KwaMbonambi.”

Phillip explains that he uses his knowledge and experience to support other small growers in the community. “My role is to guide the community, especially with the more technical things like burning firebreaks, spacing out during planting and advising on the right time to harvest. We are planting GU clones with a spacing of 2.4 metres and harvesting on a five-year rotation.”

One of Phillip Mpangele’s well-kept Eucalyptus compartments.

Phillip is in the process of diversifying into livestock (cattle and goats) as well as agriculture. A new development is that of intercropping – the planting of beans and peanuts in-between the Eucalyptus seedlings. This venture promises to create a new income stream and maximise use of the available land.

His future plans are to continue expanding his timber farm and set up a family trust for his children. “I’m not afraid to say that I will be a millionaire in five years,” he says without a shadow of doubt. A bold statement and proof that forestry is going a long way toward sustaining current and future generations in the communities of KwaMbonambi.

Harvested timber ready for market.
Phillip Mpangele’s homestead with trees, maize fields and goats all neatly fenced off into separate camps for maximum productivity.

Charcoal team clears alien wattle invasion

Charcoal is sold under the Morumotsho brand.

During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a young entrepreneur from a remote village in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa launched an innovative business turning invasive black wattle into charcoal - a classic win-win for local people and the environment.

Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) was introduced into South Africa from Australia around 1880 for livestock shelter and for firewood, and is still grown commercially today for pulp and the tannin extract industry. The problem is that black wattle produces prolific amounts of seed which has invaded many parts of the country not suitable for commercial timber, including the grasslands around Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, consuming groundwater and reducing grazing range for cattle.

Atang Justice Ramabele (29) was inspired to find a solution to the problem of invasive wattle that would also serve to alleviate some of the challenges faced by the local rural community, namely dwindling access to grazing range and widespread unemployment.

The idea for Morumotsho Charcoal Production came about during Ramabele’s year-long internship with Fetola, an NGO that focuses on finding environmental and rural solutions. The business name translates to “a black forest” in Sesotho, referring to a hillside near eNkasele village where he lives which is overridden with invasive black wattle.

Atang employs seven local people to cut down the rapidly spreading wattle trees of all sizes with chainsaws and to saw it up into 15 cm chunks. It is left to air dry for six weeks before being loaded into the kilns where it is set alight under low oxygen conditions. After a six-hour burn the wood chunks turn into high quality charcoal.

Going, going, gone … Morumotsho Charcoal worker fells a good size wattle tree, providing the raw material to feed the kilns.

Once they have cut the trees down, the Morumotsho team treats the stumps with a chemical herbicide which ensures that they do not grow back. Thus they are gradually removing the alien wattle from the hillside, and the grass is coming back, much to the delight of the local livestock owners.

This approach seems to be counter-intuitive: what happens to the business when all the alien wattle has been removed from the hillside?

There’s no chance of that, says Atang. He reckons that there is enough wattle growing around the village to keep his kilns stocked for between seven to 10 years. Then he’ll just move somewhere else – there is plenty of alien black wattle growing all over the Eastern Cape.

He has five metal kilns and produces 120 to 150 kgs of charcoal per kiln with each burn. The charcoal produced is sold in three grades: Gold, Silver and First Grade.

Kilns turning invasive alien black wattle into charcoal, Eastern Cape.

Atang and his team package the charcoal under their own brand name, Morumotsho Charcoal, which they sell locally to street vendors, caterers and shebeens. They also sell bulk charcoal to a neighbouring landowner who on-sells it, as well as to E&C Charcoal, a big, established business that manufactures and exports charcoal. Atang has also recently secured a market for Morumotsho Charcoal in nearby Lesotho.

The biggest challenge facing the business now is to increase production to meet the growing demand for the product. The poor state of the local roads makes logistics an on-going challenge, and deliveries are often made by donkey cart or tractor.

“Seeing the change and impact in our society because of my vision makes me proud,” says Atang. “Now people can farm and feed themselves again because the land has been restored, and their animals have better grazing land.”

Removing the alien wattle invasion provides livestock owners with more grazing range.

He says that local cattle owners have been receiving better prices for their animals at the auction thanks to the improved access to good grazing land.

Atang is already thinking ahead to expand his product range with other charcoal-based products like briquettes and bio-char.

“I’ve had opportunities come my way, and I’ve been able to network, learn new things and have experiences that make this a joyful journey,” he concluded.

About Fetola
Fetola is a provider of entrepreneurial support programmes that deliver lasting social, environmental and economic impact. Their goal is to grow the economy, create inclusive wealth and generate jobs by helping people build businesses that last. This is achieved by providing proven business strategy, systems and support, while unlocking the personal leadership power of entrepreneurs like Atang.

Fetola means “change” in Sesotho. The Fetola team is inspired by UN Global goal 17 to generate change at a global scale and foster partnerships that are a force for good. For more info visit

Morumotsho Charcoal entrepreneur and founder Atang Justice Ramabele.
Removing the invasive wattle is allowing the groundwater to come back to health.
Another load of fresh charcoal headed for market.
Another bakkie load of branded charcoal off to market.

Mondi Zimele's emerging timber grower programme

Phillip Mpangela (right) has been growing trees in KwaMbonambi for 25 years. He is joined by Muzi Sibiya of Khulanathi Forestry, who assists him with timber orders as well as procuring timber transport to the Mondi Mill in Richards Bay.

Mondi Zimele's Forestry Partners Programme is a project that offers multi-faceted support to emerging timber growers in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The project hinges on the distribution of high-quality eucalyptus seedlings, the provision of technical support and guidance on the ground and connecting small growers to the market once their timber is harvested.

Through its agents on the ground - Khulanathi and Awethu Forestry - Mondi Zimele distributes an impressive 500 000 plants a year and engages with 3 600 emerging growers. The implementing agents coordinate the transport and delivery of between 10 and 20 000 tonnes of timber from these small growers to the Mondi Richards Bay Mill every month, proving to be an important source of available fibre for the mill. The project has generated R803 million in revenue and is a key pillar of economic development in a region where jobs and opportunities are scarce.

This film features some of the small growers involved, shining a light on their unique stories and experiences, which are intrinsically connected to the land, the trees and the passing seasons that characterize life in Zululand, in the north-eastern corner of South Africa.

Story pics and video by Samora Chapman / Green Forest Films.

Check out the full version of the film here: Mondi Zimele - emerging timber grower programme (long version)

Read the latest feature story in our small-grower series: Once a chainsaw operator – now a grower

Comparing community forestry in South Africa and Tanzania

Community-owned forestry as the basis for conservation and development: Village Forest Reserves in southeastern Tanzania.
by Jeanette Clark [Forests Consultant |]

The Village Natural Resource Committee at Liwiti. Photo by Jonas Timothy.
Evaluating harvestable Mpingo. Photo by Anne-Marie Gregory.

In South Africa, there are a growing number of commercial forestry enterprises owned and controlled by local rural communities. The Mabandla community-owned forestry plantation in Umzimkhulu is one of the best-known examples and has been featured several times in SA Forestry magazine. Village-owned forestry businesses are also on the rise in rural Tanzania and provide the opportunity for interesting comparisons and contrasts with those in South Africa. I recently visited remote rural villages in the Kilwa District of southeastern Tanzania that are members of an FSC Group Scheme based on the sustainable harvesting of miombo woodlands. In this article, I aim to share some of the interesting features of the Tanzanian community-owned forestry operations, and draw attention to similarities and differences between them and plantation-based community forestry projects in South Africa.
Village forest reserves in Tanzania

Tanzania is unique in southern and east Africa in having a legal and administrative basis for full village ownership and control of both land and forests, a legacy of Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa and rural development policies of the 1970s. Unlike rural villages elsewhere in Africa, Tanzanian villages can register and form corporate entities through elected village councils. Registered villages can thereby take transfer of village land, forests and other assets and start commercial enterprises. Tanzanian law makes provision for the establishment of village government through elected Village Councils, and for full collective ownership of village land, including natural forests and woodlands.

The 2002 Forest Act further made provision for Village Councils to demarcate Village Land Forest Reserves (VLFR) and to make legally binding by-laws to manage these forests. An elected Village Natural Resource Committee (VNRC) is charged with managing the forest reserves.

Mpingo FSC Group Scheme
In the Kilwa District of southern Tanzania, a local NGO, the Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI), provides support to a number of villages running commercial forestry enterprises based on sustainable harvesting of indigenous woodlands. Of the 15 villages supported by MCDI, eight are now FSC-certified and make up the MCDI FSC group scheme. Mpingo is the Swahili name for Dalbergia melanoxylon, the African blackwood, one of the main species commercially harvested in these woodlands.

The eight Group Scheme members together own and manage over 100 000ha of miombo woodlands. The area of woodlands owned by each of the group scheme members varies in extent. The smallest is at Kikole, 454 hectares, and the largest, at Nanjirinji, 61 505 hectares. The Mpingo group scheme started in 2009 and membership is gradually increasing as sustainable harvesting systems are developed and implemented in the villages supported by MCDI.

The miombo woodlands in the area contain a number of valuable indigenous hardwood species with an established place in international markets (see sidebar article on page 22). A key element of the support provided by MCDI is to link its members with lucrative niche markets overseas. One such market is that for FSC certified timber for making musical instruments. Mpingo itself (African blackwood) is highly sought after for the manufacture of flutes, clarinets, bagpipes and other instruments. The villages also sell timber to local markets, mostly as standing timber.

Timber as a sustainable revenue source for local development
The Village Forest Reserves of southeastern Tanzania combine low impact sustainable harvesting of selected high value timber species with forest conservation. At the same time, revenue is generated for local development. In Tanzania, all revenue generated from Village Land Forest Reserves accrues to the village itself.

This is unlike other countries in the region where logging companies pay concession fees (or bribes) to the District or National government, and local villagers have no say and do not benefit directly from timber harvesting. I remember interviewing an elderly woman in a village in Zimbabwe some years ago who complained about what she perceived as the theft of her trees. One morning she had awoken to the sound of chainsaws. A logging company, granted a concession by the District Council, was busy felling the indigenous hardwood trees she had been protecting along the boundary of her home field. When she went to the Council offices to demand financial compensation, they had laughed at her, she said.

This not-uncommon scenario has been turned around in Tanzania, where villagers themselves own and control their timber resources, and benefit directly from timber sale revenues. The Nanjirinji village, for example, has used the revenue generated from timber sales since joining the scheme in 2012 to construct new market and primary school buildings as well as upgrade village water supplies.

Comparing Community Forestry in South Africa and Tanzania
Locally controlled forestry. Community-owned plantation enterprises in South Africa have several elements in common with the Village Forest Reserves in SE Tanzania. The central element in common is community ownership and control. Also common is that forestry is being used as a catalyst for community development. At Mabandla, the revenue from plantation timber sales is used to start other resource-based enterprises that will generate further employment and revenue for the local villagers. The Mpingo model is to leverage additional revenue from the forests, through increased timber sales, securing higher prices and trading in other markets, in particular, those in carbon credits. Although still at the planning stage, models predict annual revenue from carbon markets of up to USD $0.5 million for the largest village forests.

Development support partners. The support of committed and skilled professionals is of critical importance to the success of enterprises in both countries. At Mabandla, Rural Forest Management cc (RFM) has been providing technical and managerial support since inception. In Kilwa, the Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) plays the same role. There is one interesting difference, RFM is a for-profit company and the Mabandla business pays in full for support services they receive, whereas MCDI is an NGO that receives donor funding to support their operations. Both partners are however moving in the direction of mixed model for financing their support services: a percentage-of-revenue fee paid by the community forestry businesses, supplemented by grant/donor funding. RFM has recently set up an NGO, Umsonti, for the purposes of broadening their support to community-owned forestry businesses in South Africa. In both cases, the support provided by the development partners has been key to attaining FSC certification. In both cases also, priority is being given to developing technical and managerial capacity within the communities.

Distribution of benefits. A key issue in community-owned businesses is the distribution of benefits, and forestry projects are no exception. In forestry, the main benefits are access to employment and direct revenue from the business. At Mabandla, the forestry company employs village residents to carry out all silviculture and harvesting operations. Wages and working conditions are in line with industry norms and legal standards. The Mabandla Trust is responsible for identifying people to work for the company. Rather than spread the work opportunities more widely, they have opted to provide secure employment to the few. The Trust’s vision is however to provide additional employment opportunities through a number of other community-owned businesses.

In Tanzania, a rather different approach to employment is followed. Firstly, forestry operations differ from those in plantations and are confined mainly to forest protection and harvesting. The Village Natural Resource Committee (VNRC) members themselves do most of the forest management and protection work; including marking boundaries, forest protection patrols and supervision of harvesting operations. The VNRC members pay themselves a fixed daily rate for approved forest management work they do (work plans are approved at quarterly Village General Assembly meetings). The remuneration rate, whilst not excessive, is considerably higher than labour rates in the area and the minimum wage in the country. It is an issue that has potential to become divisive, and that MCDI has taken note of. All timber is sold standing, and buyers employ local people to fell timber using two-person crosscut saws (under Tanzanian law, no chainsaws are allowed in the forest), stacking and loading. In some cases buyers make use of their own workers. The VNRC at Nanjirinji said they did not want to risk losing customers by insisting on the use of local labour. As markets build up and become more secure, this condition may be introduced.

When it comes to revenue sharing, in both countries, profits are mainly ploughed back into further development in the area. Elected representatives (the Trust at Mabandla and the Village Councils in the case of the Mpingo villages) are responsible for decisions about disbursement of profits. General Assembly meetings provide a mechanism for oversight by the community at large. Of course, these structures are not infallible or watertight in preventing abuses and there remains a need for external checks and balances. In both cases, the support partners pay a key role in this regard.

FSC certification also could provide an oversight mechanism in this regard. Intra-community equity and benefit sharing is however not captured in the current FSC standard at criterion level, nor is it reflected in the draft

International Generic Indicators (IGIs). This concern was raised in the Mpingo IGI field test report to the FSC.

Village land ownership and governance. Tanzania has a legal and administrative basis that allows villages to legally own and manage land and natural resources. Elected village councils were introduced in the 1960s and replaced traditional authority structures. The village councils provide the basis for effective and democratic village level governance, quite unique in the region. Village General Assembly meetings, open to all adult residents of the village, are held on a quarterly basis. Secure tenure and effective institutions for governance are key ingredients in sustainable community forestry initiatives. In South Africa, tenure rights and governance structures are weak in the former homeland areas where much of the potential for community-owned forests exists.

Although 20 years have now passed since the first democratic elections, the South African government has yet to put in place a framework to upgrade tenure rights in the former homeland areas. The land occupied by local communities, including those at Mabandla, is still owned by the State and tenure rights of local communities are weak. The lack of formal tenure increases risk for the community and investors, and limits business transactions and access to finance. The National Forests Act does not provide for full community ownership and control of natural forests reserves. Provisions extend only as far as co-management with the State.

The lowest level of local government in South Africa is the local municipality. Local municipalities are responsible for vast areas encompassing multiple villages and towns. There are no formal democratic governance structures in place at village level equivalent to village councils in Tanzania. At Mabandla, the Chief has played an instrumental role in the success of the forestry enterprise, and works closely with an elected community Trust. In many other rural areas however, traditional authorities abuse their powers and stand in the way of effective and democratic governance at local level.

Community owned forestry businesses in South Africa and Tanzania are proving effective in providing local employment, a sustainable source of revenue for local economic and social development as well as promoting natural resource management and biodiversity conservation. They provide inspiration and important lessons for rural communities and their development partners throughout southern and east Africa, as well as other parts of the world.

Thanks to Marie-Christine Flechard of Soil Association Woodmark for the opportunity to join the Tanzanian IGI field test team, the Nanjirinji VNRC committee for sharing their experiences with us, and the staff of MCDI for hosting the field testing exercise and providing much of the information on which this article is based. Particular thanks to Steve Ball of MCDI for providing helpful review comments.

Mpingo – D. melanoxylon. Photo by Steve Ball.
Cross section showing heartwood, Mpingo. Photo by Anne-Marie Gregory.

Miombo woodland timber species
Dalbergia melanoxylon African blackwood, Mpingo (Swahili). Mpingo is one of the most expensive timbers in the world and is valued by the musical instrument trade because of its high density, fine texture and exceptional durability.

In addition to the flagship Mpingo, the following are highly prized timbers commonly found in south-eastern Tanzania:

The following species are also highly prized but are less common and/or have mostly been logged out:


*Mpingo Community Development Initiative:

**Published in June 2014

Umgano Sawmill taking shape

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