NCT’s Small-Scale Tree Farmer of the Year for 2021 demonstrates how to establish and build a sustainable tree farming operation in faraway Matimatolo, near Kranskop in the KZN midlands …
By Samora Chapman
Matimatolo is a small tribal area in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, which lies on an escarpment 850 metres above sea level. It’s a remote rural area, where job opportunities are scarce and infrastructure is limited. However the rainfall is good and the land is fertile and abundant. In this area, and many others like it, small-scale forestry and farming can sustain families and communities - if it is done right.
Introducing husband and wife team Nomthandazo Hlombe and Fisokuhle Ngcobo, who together run an efficient 6ha wattle farm that supports the family, provides jobs and inspires others to make better use of their land.
Nomthandazo is the recipient of the NCT Small Grower of the Year Award for 2021, a proud achievement for her and her husband, who have worked side-by-side to improve and grow their business from humble beginnings to the sustainable enterprise that it is today.
Mr Ngcobo has been growing trees for 27 years, learning the practice from his neighbour, who was the first person in the area to establish a sustainable timber farm. In 2000 he married Nomthandazo Hlombe and introduced her to the business of growing trees. She learned fast and took over many responsibilities – land preparation, accounts, marketing and planning, allowing Mr Ngcobo to focus on planting, labour, maintenance and harvesting.
Together they grew their operation from 1ha to 6ha, which is spread out in the form of small plots within a kilometre of their homestead. The wattle stands are fenced, meticulously maintained and planted in neat rows - in stark contrast to the neighbouring wattle and bramble jungle!
“Unemployment is the biggest challenge here, but the youth do not see value in farming,” says Mrs Hlombe as she sits under a shady avo tree with her husband. She is nursing a beautiful baby girl, while chickens walk about the yard chasing anything that moves. It’s a typical scene of rural life in KwaZulu-Natal. A few wattle poles are stacked alongside the homestead, readily available for neighbours to pop in and buy on an informal basis.
“We lead by example, showing our community that you can make a good living growing trees,” she goes on. “We encourage youth to get an education first, but it’s good for them to know that if you work hard you can run a successful tree farm. The land is full of opportunity.”
Vusi Dladla, NCT’s Development Services Manager commented on Mrs Hlombe’s journey to becoming one of the top small-scale tree farmers in the area: “Her claim to fame was the use of naturally regenerated wattle seedlings to plant up new areas,” he explained. “This was a learning curve since she was planting non genetically improved material. But with limited financial resources, she managed to expand her timber area from a small field to the six hectares under timber production today. When NCT and NTE introduced a wattle replanting programme she grabbed the opportunity and made a success of it.”
Mr Ngcobo discusses the many wonders of the wattle tree. “Wattle is a very profitable crop – it has many benefits,” he says in his quiet way. “We sell the timber to NCT and the bark to NTE. Thinnings can be used for fencing and firewood. We also grow cabbage, potatoes, spinach, madumbis and chilli, which we sell at the local market and use to feed our family.”
Winning the NCT Small Grower of the Year came with a brand new STIHL chainsaw. “I’m so proud and happy that we won this award,” says Mr Ngcobo, beaming. “Although I have been using a chainsaw for over 20 years, this is the first time having our very own machine. We usually hire machines, they are expensive and in bad condition!”
Mr Ngcobo says that the support and guidance of Eza Mapipa (NTE’s Forestry Development Officer) and Cliff Walton (NCT’s Greytown District Manager) has helped their business immensely. “The partnership helps steer us in the right direction,” he explains. “We communicate all the time, so we can see where we are going. We have direct access to the market, which means we get paid the correct rate for our timber and bark.”
Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe are part of a small-grower development initiative called Project Regen, which was first established in Zululand in 2012, and launched in the Matimatolo area in 2018. NCT supplies member small-growers with seedlings and NTE supplies chemicals for land prep, as well as offering technical advice on how to improve production, manage diseases and burn firebreaks.
Seedlings are sourced from CPS and delivered directly to small growers to minimize stress on the plants. “The eMatimatolo area is particularly well suited to black wattle,” says Cliff Walton. “We choose cool days for planting, which happens in spring when there is plenty of rain in this area. We don’t plant with any gels, only water and we leave fertilizing up to our small growers, although we advise where needed. We require that all growers fence their plots to ensure protection from goats, cattle (and even rabbits) which roam the area.”
It made perfect sense for NCT and NTE to collaborate on supporting small growers in the area, to help secure a consistent and quality supply of timber and bark in the region.
“Project Regen is all about getting these small growers to be more sustainable,” explains Cliff. “What’s amazing about Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo is that they always take initiative, they ask questions when they have problems and they take pride in their work. Mrs Hlombe makes sure their GST is signed annually and their requests are placed at our office. She is certainly very organised!
“They concentrate all their energy into building their own areas, whether it is wattle or other forms of agriculture and are certainly pure farmers from that point of view,” continues Cliff. “Many other small-scale farmers in the area are non-sustainable and harvest their small patch of wattle or gum and then have to buy and sell from other people around them whilst they wait for their plantation to come back into maturity. Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo have slowly increased their average yield per ha and we expect their yields to increase in the future. Their wattle plantations reflect all their hard work. As a unique team they manage to achieve superior results and are a shining example of what can be achieved. Whenever we visit, they are busy adding value to their forestry/farm operations and always appear happy and humble.”
“From the outset it’s been a wonderful partnership,” adds Eza Mapipa of NTE, who has a close working relationship with Cliff and the husband and wife team. “NTE offers extension services – which includes everything from advice on fire protection, planting and harvesting. We aim to use the resources we have to empower local farmers with knowledge and skills to improve their businesses and make them self-sustainable.”
Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe deliver their bark to the NTE Hermannsburg factory where it is processed for use primarily in the tanning industry. It’s crucial that the bark is stripped and delivered as soon as possible after harvesting to make the best quality product out of fresh bark. Ideally it should be delivered on the same day that it is harvested, or at least within 48 hours.
Their timber is delivered to the NCT Ahrens depot. From there it is transported to the NCT chipping mill in Richards Bay and exported, primarily to markets in the East.
Transport is a major challenge for small growers in Matimatolo. Local transporters are unreliable and charge a hefty price for services – R500 for a bakkie load of bark and R1 000 for a small truckload of timber, which must be paid in cash.
“One day we hope to buy our own bakkie so that we can be totally self-sufficient,” comments Mrs Hlombe. “We would also like to work towards certification, so that we can get better prices for our timber.”
Eza explains that efforts are continuing to get sustainable small-scale growers like the Ngcobos certified under SAFAS, which has developed a certification system that is relevant to the African context and has been endorsed by PEFC. Although there are a number of challenges with certifying the small growers, SAFAS takes into consideration the low environmental impact of small-scale farming across the landscape and the numerous benefits of forestry to the local economy and people.
In terms of fire protection – firebreaks are hoed and all excess brush is burned to keep fuel loads down. Mr Ngcobo says that the community are quick to support one another in the case of a wildfire.
The champion tree farmers hope to buy more land in the future, with the goal of expanding their planted area to 20ha. With more small-scale growers emerging and improving their tree farms in Matimatolo, the mix of forestry and agriculture has the potential to improve the standard of living and benefit many generations to come.
*First published in SA Forestry Annual, 2021