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

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

Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature

Ghostly post mega-fire landscape, Southern Cape.

The number and severity of out-of-control wildfires are increasing around the world, causing untold damage to the environment, to infrastructure and the local economies, not to mention the loss of life and suffering of fire victims – both human and animal.

We all know why this is happening … climate change, prolonged dry spells followed by high winds, uncontrolled development on the urban-wildland interface, the proliferation of invasive alien plants leading to high fuel loads, changing land use patterns, poor land management, criminality, negligence and arson.

Yet we live in an environment here in southern Africa that is described as ‘fire-prone’. The natural landscapes around us actually need fire to maintain their ecological integrity. Surely we should have learned to manage these dynamics by now?

The fact of the matter is that fire is a primal force of nature that is not easily controlled, and in some instances is uncontrollable. Therefore human efforts to manage fire are always going to be caught short. Once a big fire is rampaging through a dry landscape with high fuel loads and strong winds behind it, there is no stopping it.

Our best option is to try and manage the conditions that fuel the development of uncontrollable wildfires in the first place, and to get our disaster teams organised to deal with the consequences when they do happen. This is easier said than done, requiring a level of cooperation between land owners, land managers, fire protection associations, fire authorities at all levels of government - and the weather gods – that has thus far escaped us.

Nelson Mandela University has made a huge contribution to efforts to understand and manage the dynamics that surround fire management through the development of a comprehensive Fire Management study programme and the hosting of annual Fire Management symposiums that bring together fire experts from around the country and the world.

Many of these fire experts attended the most recent 13th Fire Management Symposium held at NMU’s George Campus in November last year, thrashing out the issues, comparing notes and networking furiously. Useful, but unlikely to stop the next mega-fire. As one experienced delegate pointed out, we talk and talk but get no closer to achieving the level of collaboration required by all the fire stakeholders to actually make a difference.

Well controlled prescribed burn in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is designed to reduce fuel loads in an effort to prevent unwanted wildfires.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the absence at these symposiums of key government figures who could influence policy and resource allocation at national, provincial and local levels that would enable fire management stakeholders to ramp up their capacity to manage fire.

Forestry companies find themselves in the trenches at the fire-line, spending their own money to protect their plantations and processing facilities from wildfires, many of which are started outside of their boundaries. They prop up local fire protection associations, run fire awareness campaigns and put out fires they didn’t start.

This is where the rubber hits the tar.

One of the highlights of the recent Symposium was the presentation by Montigny Investments’ Risk Manager, Arno Pienaar. The Montigny team operates 80 000 ha of forest land in neighbouring Eswatini, and have implemented an old school ‘military style’ approach to keep fires out of their plantations, with considerable success. These are the same plantations that burnt to the ground in 2008, resulting in the closure of the Usutu pulp mill and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Montigny Investments is now the biggest single employer in Eswatini, and they simply cannot afford to allow another mega-fire to destroy it all again. So they have made their own plans, unconventional but effective (see full story here).

One of the keys to Montigny’s success, and this came up again and again during the symposium, was the need to get local communities on your side to prevent wildfires from happening. Properly on your side. Cut out arson fires started by angry, bored, poor, disgruntled neighbours, and half your battle is won.

This is way easier said than done, and involves a complete overhaul of the socio-economic conditions that prevail in much of southern Africa. It’s complicated, and goes way beyond the scope of the fire management fraternity.

Lessons from a mega-fire

Perhaps it would be useful to re-look at the learnings that Paul Gerber, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Cape FPA, took from the 2017 mega-fire that turned large swaths of the Southern Cape region between George and PE to a cinder in 2017.

The Southern Cape Fire Protection Association has its hands full keeping wildfires out of this region.

• Overall there is a greater need for integrated fire management.

• Greater focus needs to be directed at awareness of the general public as well as different authorities, concerning the fire hazards that exist in the natural as well as built environment.

• Lack of financial resources: Plans for fire fighting are good but must be implementable by providing ample resources. The emphasis needs to be on being pro-active rather than reactive. A good example here is that helicopters are not deployed early enough while fires are still small and conditions are favourable, because of the high operating costs involved. They are only released when fires have assumed disastrous proportions, by which time conditions are often no longer safe for flying.

• Because of a general shortage of fire-fighting capacity and resources, more emphasis should be placed on pro-active fire prevention measures, especially controlled burns. In the well-known fire triangle, the fuel load, particularly the fine fuel component, is the only factor that can be managed and controlled. This is the factor on which all involved in fire prevention should concentrate.

• The use of media in informing and warning people was not effective. In the recent fire there was a lack of communication with the public/residents, as well as among fire fighting crews during the operations. The need for an independent, dedicated two-way radio communication system during disasters was identified, as communications via existing radio and cell-phone networks proved to be ineffective at times.

• Tactical and operational planning for the combatting of wildfires of this size should rely heavily on local experience and knowledge. With the introduction of authorities from elsewhere to take command, it was found that advice from local fire experts was disregarded.

• All spheres of government involved in fire disasters need to be trained in the incident command system.

• Divisional supervisors (‘fire bosses’) need to be well trained. At the Knysna fire there were not enough qualified fire bosses. Such supervisors need to undergo organised training courses. In the recent fire five FPA managers had to be made available to act as divisional supervisors.

• The need for fire fighting personnel experienced in veld fires who know how to make back-burns, was identified. The holiday resort of Buffalo Bay and the Fairview forest village were saved from being destroyed by judicious back-burns by foresters. It must be noted that some authorities would not give permission for such operations to be conducted.

• In the urban-rural interface, many houses built amongst natural vegetation burnt down. This practice must be reviewed and buildings need defendable space around them in the case of wildfires.

Here are some take-outs from the 13th Fire Management Symposium:-

A common thread of wildfires around the world … droughts followed by heat waves with temps above 40 degrees C and strong winds - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Symposium presenters fielding questions from the floor (left to right) Ian Pienaar (Montigny), Trevor Abrahams (WoF), Paul Gerber (Southern Cape FPA) and Pam Booth (Knysna Municipality).

10 000 ha burnt in five hours. Final size of the fire: 189 000 ha. Flame lengths: 300 metres - Rodeo-Chediski fire, Arizona, 2002.

When it rains a lot in dry parts of South Africa, beware the following year the risk of wildfires increases - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Building regulations should take fire risk into account – Greg Forsyth.

More accurate, balanced and informed reporting on fire is needed in SA – Lee Raath Brownie, Fire & Rescue International.

Fires are a people problem – Arno Pienaar, Montigny.

We need 17 000 wildland fire fighters in SA. We have 5 300 – Trevor Abrahams, Working on Fire.

One of the successes of the WoF programme are the many people who come through the programme and move into positions of employment. 60% of WoF managers are former WoF firefighters – Trevor Abrahams.

Working on Fire is a government job creation initiative that trains and deploys young fire fighters who assist landowners in times of need.

We talk and don’t implement. We are still doing it – Paul Gerber, Southern Cape FPA.

The Knysna fire was reported two months before it turned into a big fire. It was left to smoulder – Paul Gerber.

Fire is part of the African landscape. If you exclude it, it will lead to higher fuel loads and ultimately bigger fires – Piet van der Merwe, WoF.

Fires grow exponentially after ignition. The quicker you can get to it, the smaller is the fire and the easier it is to put out. – Piet van der Merwe.

We need to figure out how to capacitate FPAs … almost all of them are dependent on private sector funding – Val Charlton, Land Works.

Integrated fire prevention is a leadership problem more than a funding problem … there is an absence of political leadership and support – Etienne du Toit, Western Cape Government

Fuel load influences all the pillars of your fire management strategy – Deon Greyling, Mondi.

Big fires change the ecology of a landscape – Dr Rachel Loehman, US Geological Survey.

Pine and fynbos are highly flammable and fire prone – Dr Annelise Schutte-Vlok, Cape Nature.

Fire frequency is lower in small and medium grower plantations – Jeffrey le Roux, Sappi.

Everything that happens on the surface of the earth affects the groundwater, which provides 30% of the world’s fresh water. All pollution percolates down into the groundwater. So wildfires and groundwater are intimately linked – Dr Jo Barnes.

The ‘bakkie sakkie’ is the basic equipment that helps foresters keep wildfires out of their plantations.
Rehabilitation work on the go to prevent soil erosion near Knysna after the 2017 inferno.
Stihl knapsacks, blowers and chainsaws on display at the symposium.
Timber salvaged by PG Bison after the 2017 Knysna fires is stacked in a massive wet deck that at its height was 3 km long, 24 metres wide and 4.5 metres high. (Photo courtesy Roger Parsons and Ritchie Morris)
Fighting fires is dangerous work … you need the right gear.
Tiaan Pool, Head of the Forestry, Wood Technology and Veldfire Management Department at Nelson Mandela University, is the driving force behind the Fire Symposiums held at the NMU George campus.

*Check out the related feature: Military approach to fire prevention at Montigny

Forest GIS and Remote Sensing conference

A Forest GIS and Remote Sensing conference is taking place at the Southern Sun Elangeni Maharani in Durban from 9-10 December 2021. The aim of the conference is to highlight the importance of GIS and remote sensing technologies in forestry and their applications for forest management, and to review current research findings and recommendations.

Presentations that will be made during the conference include:-

• How Mondi is using satellite remote sensing, GIS tools and applications to support decision making, by Paul van Heerden, Senior GIS Technician at Mondi.

• Streamlining forestry operations through multispectral satellite imagery, by Michael Breetzke of Swift Geospatial.

• The use of drones in forest management, by Ross Walters of Specialised Agricultural Services.

• Remotely mapping trees from seedling to harvest, by independent consultant Dr Kabir Peerbhay.

• GIS enterprise and remote sensing coming together, by Pieter Human of Sappi.

• Technology in forest management, by Dr Bruce Sithole of CSIR.

For more info contact Levi on 067 107 6133; email

Pioneering a new approach to wetland management

Mondi is introducing a new approach to wetland management that could serve as a model for other corporate landowners, and have significant impacts on other operational areas, including safety. 

Zoar wetland near Iswepe
Zoar wetland near Iswepe, 12 years after it was rehabilitated. (Photo: Maryann Rivers-Moore)
Harvesting weaving grasses from wetland Discussion composition of wetland soils
A member of the local community harvesting weaving grasses from a healthy wetland, Melmoth. Damian Walters (right), MWP: Coordinator, Wise Use of Wetland Resources Programme, discusses the composition of wetland soils with Mondi's Environment Manager: Forests, Chris Burchmore (left) and Uwe Foelster, Mondi Group Head of Sustainable Development, at Lake Merthley, Greytown. (Photo: David Lindley)
Fishing at Zoar wetland Cows grazing on Mondi wetland
Local community member fishing in the rehabilitated Zoar wetland, which is able to support people's livelihoods by providing a much-needed source of protein. (Photo: Damian Walters) The Mondi State of the Wetland report found that grazing (harvestable resources) of wetlands is an important ecosystem service provided by 64% of the wetlands found on Mondi property. (Photo: Damian Walters)

Mondi is one of the largest private owners of wetlands in South Africa, with 20 000 ha of wetlands situated in open areas on its South African plantations. As a company that takes its environmental responsibility seriously, it’s no surprise that Mondi has played a leading role – through its involvement in the Mondi Wetlands Programme (MWP) – in promoting awareness and better management and rehabilitation of wetlands.

The Mondi Wetlands Programme was established in 1991 by the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (WESSA) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – in partnership with Mondi and the Mazda Wildlife Fund – to get South Africans working together to protect the health of wetlands, which provide a host of crucial ecological services.

Over the past 20 years, the MWP has played a major role in catalysing and supporting the government-led Working for Wetlands programme, helped provincial governments work with communal wetland users, and strengthened wetland management capacity within government and commercial landowners. It has also played a key role in raising awareness of the importance of wetlands outside of the forestry industry, and has helped the sugar industry develop a sustainable farm management system.

However, despite some important wetland rehabilitation and delineation successes, research has shown that wetland learning and practice in Mondi, and its integration into every-day forestry operations, was generally weak.

The root causes inhibiting wetland management could be as a result of institutional factors that are of historical and cultural origin within the company, and are common to other corporates as well.


The MWP team has embarked on an exciting process of unlocking the institutional barriers and creating a platform for more effective and integrated wetland management and practice by forestry employees through an 'expansive learning' process. This is a form of learning where participants work together to identify the 'barriers', and develop solutions and new forms of practice.

This process works differently from the more traditional approach of employing 'experts' to establish wetland management standards and expecting field staff to implement them.

Through an expansive learning process started in 2010 and continued into 2011, Mondi field staff responsible for wetland stewardship identified key inhibiting factors, deepened their understanding of them and developed solutions. The key participants were foresters, forestry operations supervisors, environmental support staff, and community engagement facilitators. Staff then began to implement the solutions through 11 projects in the five geographical regions of Mondi.

A culture of learning

A key component of this approach is to create a 'safe' space for staff to interact, share experiences and learn from others operating outside of their own 'silos' of professional expertise, through field days, site visits and social interaction. This encourages a culture within the organisation where learning, sharing ideas and solving problems in collaboration with relevant staff from other professional disciplines becomes a way of life.

In response to solutions identified by Mondi staff during the expansive learning process, a number of initiatives to improve institutional learning around catchment-based environmental issues have emerged. Workshops have been run with community engagement and development facilitators to support the strengthening of skills in environmental learning methods through the use of an interactive catchment-based learning tool to strengthen their community work. Follow-up workshops to support and assess the development of their competence in using the tool in their community work as well as for learning and sharing with other Mondi staff, has taken place.

Supervisor training

The MWP team has worked with WESSA's Sustain-Ed Programme to develop an environmental module for the forestry industry's Supervisor Development Training Programme that incorporates effective environmental training methods through the use of the catchment-based learning tool. A workshop will be organised for approximately six trainers, who will be running the Environmental Module for the industry, on effective and appropriate environmental learning and training methods.

This module is intended to take catchment- (including wetlands) based environmental learning into the formal training of the broader forestry industry, and can feed into and inform other industries such as sugar and mining.

Although the current project is focusing on wetland management, it has the potential to be equally game changing in other key areas of business, such as safety.

Published in February 2012