New generation contractor makes his mark

Sabelo Sithole of New Age Forest Solutions.

At just 30-years-old, Sabelo Sithole is at the forefront of a new generation of forestry contractors servicing Mondi South Africa. Sabelo is the Managing Director of New Age Forest Solutions, a new harvesting business launched in 2021, which has secured a five-year harvesting contract for the Zululand area.

Sabelo’s journey in forestry has been deeply connected to Mondi from the start. During high school, he attended Protec, an extra-curricular maths and science programme that gives academic support to under-resourced rural schools. This programme has long been supported by Mondi, and Sabelo rose to the fore as one of his school’s top academic achievers. He was identified as a candidate for the Mondi Bursary Programme and made a successful application in 2012.

“To be honest I didn’t know anything about forestry,” admits Sabelo with a shy smile as he walks through a shady plantation in Zululand. Sabelo stops at the harvesting operation to check in on one of his Hitachi machines, which is cutting through a Eucalyptus compartment with great speed and precision. Here he continues his story…

“The first thing you do after receiving the bursary is go to a Mondi operation for work experience. This lasts a whole year and it’s really tough!” he remembers. “You do everything from general labour to planting, establishment, tending and harvesting … that’s where I started to know about forestry, to experience every different kind of work.”

From there, Sabelo went to study forestry at Nelson Mandela University’s George campus, where he completed a three-year National Diploma in Forestry. After graduating, he joined SiyaQhubeka Forests, and worked as both a harvesting and silviculture forester. It was harvesting that stole his heart.

“I decided to leave SQF and join a harvesting contractor so that I could specialise,” explains Sabelo. “The machines really fascinated me. I spent four and a half years at the harvesting contractor. Then I started my own business.”

Excavator equipped with a Ponsse head busy harvesting for Mondi in Zululand.

Sabelo was always looking for opportunities to grow, and he kept an eye on the regular contracting opportunities being advertised by Mondi and SQF. He began working on a business plan and registered his company New Age Forest Solutions in 2021.

“Working with a contractor helped me understand the business side of forestry. I started my business as the only employee – I was doing everything myself. When I won the Mondi harvesting contract last year, I had to hit the ground running!”

Sabelo takes a look at a stack of freshly cut timber. He is happy with the neatly stripped and stacked logs. The soft-spoken young forester is brand new to business, but he has 10 years of operational experience, which puts him in a good position to guide the company.

“From the moment I made the successful bid on the contract, Mondi Zimele has assisted me every step of the way,” he goes on. “They believed in me and my vision for the business.”

Mondi Zimele, which is Mondi’s enterprise development unit, provided 60% of the start-up funding in the form of a soft loan and helped Sabelo consolidate his business plan so he could apply for further funding.

It took a few months to put a team together and acquire the assets needed to start the work.

In order to meet the contract of 140 000 tonnes per annum, Sabelo needed two harvesters, a forwarder and a loader. He went for Hitachi excavators fitted with Ponsse H7 harvesting heads, a forwarder with a Matriarch grapple and a Bell loader. Once his forestry equipment was in place and his team was mobilized, he commenced work in May last year. It was a dream come true.

The Bell loader, workhorse of the harvesting operation.

The Mondi perspective
Cindy Mji is the Mondi Zimele Business Development Manager responsible for the Zululand area. She has been engaging with Sabelo from the time he won the contract.

“Supporting Mondi contractors has many benefits,” she explains as she sits on the back of a bakkie with Sabelo, while the harvester hums in the distance. “Developing new contractors is important for job creation and economic development, which helps to build healthy communities in the forestry footprint. But it is also crucial that we empower up-and-coming contractors to ensure the sustainability of the supply chain for Mondi,” she explains.

“This is part of Mondi’s broader strategy to develop new contractors in the forestry space. The strategy prioritizes transformation and succession planning. Being a young black forester, Sabelo was the perfect candidate, and he has a bright future in the business,” she concludes.

Sabelo adds that the business development support encourages continuous improvement, growth and development. Cindy has helped him set out short, medium and long term goals that go beyond the scope of the Mondi contract.

Excavator equipped with a Ponsse head busy harvesting for Mondi in Zululand.

“MZ helps you to be a visionary,” Sabelo says with a smile.

“Although we are just beginning our journey, I am very excited and proud of our achievements. We have 20 employees, and four machines running 24/7. That’s 20 families that are benefitting from this work. We are looking to add more employees and grow the business even further.”

Story and photos by Samora Chapman

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.

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

New Chairperson leads revamped FSCC board

Leading the drive for transformation of the Forest Sector, Nelly Ndlovu (FSCC chairperson) and Makhosazana Mavimbela (FSCC Executive Director).

The Minister of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, has appointed a new Forest Sector Charter Council board, that will serve for a three-year term. The board is chaired by Ms Nelly Ndlovu, Executive Director of Mondi Zimele, and includes representatives from government, industry, labour and communities.

This is the third Council board to be appointed since the amalgamation of the Forest Sector Code, now Amended. The Council’s mandate is to encourage, facilitate and support the achievement of B-BBEE targets as set out in the Forest Sector codes, and to monitor and report on the Sector’s transformation progress.

Forest Sector Charter Council Board Members:-

Nelly Ndlovu, Chairperson (Executive Director, Mondi Zimele - Mondi’s enterprise development unit)
Makhosazana Mavimbela - Executive Director, FSCC
Michael Peter (Executive Director, Forestry South Africa)
Dwayne Marx (CEO SA Forestry Contractors’ Association)
Tanucia Coopasamy (Transformation Manager, Mpact Ltd)
Roy Southey (Executive Director, Sawmilling SA)
Lulamile Xate (Chairperson, Cape Pine and MTO Forestry)
Tshepo Makhene (Head of Projects, Southern African Clothing & Textile Workers Union)
Pierre Tullis (Operations Manager, SA Utility Pole Association)
Thandi Mokwena (Executive Director, Matsino Business Enterprise – small-scale forestry & processing business)
Kwena Komape, (DDG, Department Agriculture, Land Reform & Rural Development)
Lindiwe Mavundla (Director BBBEE & Policy Unit, Department of Trade & Industry)
Tyrone Hawkes (Vice-president Strategy & Business Development, Sappi)
Pumeza Nodada (DDG, Department Forestry, Fisheries & Environment)
Bruce Breedt (Executive Director, SA Wood Preservers Association)
Penwell Lunga (Executive Director Corporate Affairs, KAP Industrial Holdings Ltd)
Darryll Sauer (community representative)
Mlungisi Bushula (community representative)

Note: The appointment of the two community representatives to the Council has still to be confirmed.

Addressing the first new FSCC board meeting recently, Nelly Ndlovu had this to say: “Today marks for me, and I certainly hope for you all - a new dawn, an opportunity to help drive, facilitate and support the change we want to see within our sector. Whether it be building resilience within our communities, facilitating the development of skills for our sector, promoting diversity and inclusion - in particular women - across all spheres of our sector, or supporting enterprise development and the creation of economic pathways - all of which will ultimately contribute positively not only to our Sector but also to our country.

“The work of the FSCC is important, as it is through our work of driving transformation and facilitating the implementation of B-BBEE, that the purpose and character of our entire Forest Sector is magnified. So, as we begin our journey, let us always keep in mind the critical importance of our mandate.”

Commenting on Nelly’s appointment as Chairperson, FSCC Executive Director Makhosazana Mavimbela said: “I have not only known Nelly as a CEO of Mondi Zimele but have interacted with her on some of the FSCC initiatives such as CEO visits, She is Forestry SA webinars etc. I am personally excited to work with Nelly as she is vibrant, very knowledgeable, courageous, confident, and very influential, and more so a strong supporter of women empowerment. I am confident that I will be the main beneficiary of her exceptional leadership skills, her positive attitude and deep knowledge base about the South African Forest Sector.”

Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) is a legal imperative for all businesses operating in the Republic of South Africa. In the Forest Sector context, the B-BBEE imperative is given legal force through the Amended Forest Sector Code, 40803.

Once a chainsaw operator – now a grower

Part Two in our focus on the small-scale tree farmers of KZN ...

Enoch Mathenjwa manages 40 hectares of eucalyptus and is one of many small growers in Zululand that supplies timber to the Mondi Richards Bay Mill.

Story and pics by Samora Chapman

Enoch Mathenjwa’s journey in forestry goes way back - nearly four decades back to a different time in South Africa. In 1983 Enoch got his first job in forestry as a chainsaw operator for Shell Forestry in KwaMbonambi. Little did he know that he would eventually own 40 hectares of his own lush forests, scattered across the deep rural area of Thelizolo, where a mosaic of small timber farms reach as far as the eye can see.

“I grow slowly but surely, every year, a bit at a time,” he says with a toothy grin, sitting on the back of his bakkie on a sandy farm road. “I own a taxi business in the village … and every time I make a profit, I grow more trees. I only deal with Mondi Zimele and Awethu Forestry,” he adds, referring to the market connection to the Mondi Richards Bay Mill in the south.

Despite having worked in forestry as a young man, it was only in 2006 that Enoch decided to establish his own plantation. He requested land from the local chief and planted his first four hectares in an effort to establish a side business that could supplement his income. About one rotation later, in 2012, he was introduced to Awethu Forestry, a local forestry agent that was implementing Mondi Zimele’s master plan to boost rural development in the region through forestry.

“When I joined Awethu and the Mondi Zimele programme, everything changed,” he says with pride. “The advice, the high-quality seedlings and the access to the market encouraged me to grow the business and take forestry more seriously. Looking back, I have been able to do many things through forestry. I even paid the deposit for this bakkie right here,” he says, giving the bakkie a pat like it was a noble steed.

Enoch takes a walk with Ntombifuthi Mthembu and Nonkazimlo Mkwa of Awethu Forestry, which is the implementing agent of Mondi Zimele's Forestry Partners Programme.

Awethu Forestry supports Enoch at every level of the business, operating as the vital connection between the small-grower and Mondi. At harvest time Awethu Forestry coordinates a local harvesting contractor to fell the trees and then a short-haul contractor to load the timber on a tractor-trailer and navigate the winding and treacherous sandy roads to the nearest Awethu depot. From there, the timber is loaded by hand onto a 38 tonne truck, which carries the precious cargo all the way to the Mondi Mill, some 265 kilometres to the south. And that’s the origin of the paper and packaging products manufactured by Mondi that are sold all over the world.

These are the nuts and bolts of the Mondi Zimele Forestry Partners Programme, a unique partnership that has seen a total of 933 690 tonnes of timber delivered to Mondi in the last 15 years, generating R803 million in revenue for the small growers of Zululand.

Awethu Forestry coordinates transport for the long haul from the Thelizolo depot to the Mondi Richards Bay Mill, 265 kilometres to the south.

Fire and the future
Enoch says that fire is the main threat to his forestry business. “There are honey hunters in this area – they use fire to smoke out the bees and harvest honey. This is a danger to the plantations, especially since we do not have fire-fighting equipment,” he explains.

He goes on to highlight the importance of firebreaks and keeping compartments clean so that there is less fuel for a fire if one does break out.

Enoch’s vision for the future is to buy his own tractor-trailer and timber truck so that he can deliver his own timber to the Thelizolo depot AND handle the long haul to the Mondi Richards Bay mill. This will also enable him to start a timber transport contracting business to service the many other growers in the area. And so the cycle continues to grow and evolve, benefiting more and more people along the magical value chain … from seedling to mill.

GU clones are the best trees for the dry and sandy conditions in Zululand.

Find out more at and read our previous post in the series: Rejoice Shozi – Soil is the source of life.

Rejoice Shozi – Soil is the source of life

Part One in our focus on the small-scale tree farmers of KZN ...

Rejoice Shozi manages six hectares of eucalyptus in Empembeni, northern KwaZulu-Natal, and is chairperson of the Khulanathi Growers Committee.

Rejoice Shozi, small-scale timber grower and local leader, explains how forestry is providing livelihoods in rural KwaZulu-Natal…

Rejoice Shozi comes from a family that has always had a deep connection with the land. For as long as she can remember, her mother grew vegetables and trees and her father grew sugar cane on the small plot of land the family owns in Empembeni, 30 kms south of Richards Bay, northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

When her father passed away in 2015, Rejoice inherited three hectares of land and took the opportunity to revive and expand her mother’s small Eucalyptus plot. She soon saw the benefit of timber and began reaching out to her neighbours who had plots of land that were not being utilized. In this way she established three more hectares of Eucalyptus, which she plants, maintains and harvests while paying the land-owners a rental fee.

“From a young age I learned that soil is a source of life,” says Rejoice as she walks through one of her thriving Eucalyptus plantations. Her big smile, uplifting energy and leadership qualities have helped her become a guiding force for small growers in the area, where she is the chairperson of the Khulanathi Growers Committee. When she’s not busy managing her own woodlots, she assists other growers in the area with coordinating transport, harvesting and general advice about forestry best practices.

Rejoice employs six people when she is planting or harvesting timber and she has bought her own chainsaw, offering harvesting services to other growers in the area. She receives her seedlings free of charge from Khulanathi Forestry, which is the implementing agent of Mondi Zimele’s Forestry Partners Programme, an initiative that seeks to support small growers in the region.

‘Ma Shozi’ (as she is better known) harvests her timber on a six-year rotation and delivers it to the Khulanathi depot at Esikhawini. Khulanathi coordinates transport for the long haul to the Mondi Mill in Richards Bay.

“We use local labour and local transport contractors,” says Rejoice as she inspects the two-hectare plot, which is neatly maintained, free from weeds and stocked with neat rows of trees ready for harvest.

“Transport is my biggest challenge because it is my biggest cost,” she adds. “I hope to one day own my own truck.”

Khulanathi – bridging the gap
“Rejoice is one of the hardest working people in the area. She makes it easier for us to work with the small growers here,” says Thokozani Mfekayi, Operations Manager of Khulanathi Forestry. “She assists us in communicating with the other growers for meetings and field days.”

Rejoice and Thokozani do the rounds and agree that the plot should be harvested soon.

Thokozani Mfekayi of Khulanathi Forestry is working closely with Rejoice to grow small-scale forestry in the region.

“I’m happy with the trees around me but there are some open spaces,” observes Thokozani. “Once we have harvested, Rejoice will re-plant to full stocking. We give her advice on how best to establish, maintain and harvest her woodlot. We also assist in negotiation for rates with transport contractors. When she is ready to re-plant we will deliver high quality Eucalyptus seedlings to her. We distribute Mondi seedlings to all of our small growers.”

Thokozani explains that GU clones are the best trees for the dry and sandy conditions in Zululand. GC clones were also used in the past but they were prone to pests and diseases.

The Mondi Zimele connection

Sizwe Mtengu of Mondi Zimele points out that many people in rural KZN have access to land, but lack the resources and skills to utilize it profitably. This is where Mondi Zimele and Khulanathi are filling the gap – supplying high quality seedlings to small growers, offering technical skills and guidance on the ground and providing the market for the timber once it is harvested.

“Rejoice is something of a spokesperson for the small growers in this area,” says Sizwe. “She is an entrepreneur and I can see her managing more small plots of land and growing her business in the future.”

Sizwe Mtengu and Zanele Ximba of Mondi Zimele enjoy a visit to one of Rejoice Shozi's thriving woodlots.

Rejoice recently attended a harvesting training field day arranged by Khulanathi and Mondi Zimele, as part of their initiative to certify small growers.

The certification programme is assisting 10 small growers in the area toward getting FSC certified, through CMO and the guidance of Michal Brink. Three growers have already been certified.

Certification will give the small-growers a better rate for their timber, along with the stamp of approval for the sustainability of their operations. “We are doing everything we can to create an enabling environment for small growers to be able to sell certified timber,” comments Sizwe.

“All the small-growers work together and support one another,” says Rejoice in closing. “There are many women being empowered through this way of life,” she adds. “Forestry has helped me raise four children and it has helped me grow in self-confidence. We must teach our children how to grow trees and understand the value of the land.”

Find out more at and read part two here: Once a chainsaw operator – now a grower.