Wonderful wattle in Matimatolo

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.”

Wonderful Wattle
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.”

Project Regen
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

STIHL bounces back

It’s a month since the unrest that saw the STIHL SA head office and its warehouse in Pietermaritzburg being totally destroyed, with the loss of 100% of the stock. Dealers in Durban, Greytown, Empangeni, Pinetown and Howick were also looted. However, plans were almost immediately set in place to get stock back into the country as quickly as possible, and the affected dealers ‘made a plan’ to get back up and running again. It’s been a tough few weeks but the good news is that STIHL has received delivery of over 90 tons of stock via airfreight, with more to come through within the next few days. STIHL had to integrate its systems with those of the new third party logistics partner, which required extensive testing. The first test orders were received by dealers last week and the company is gradually ramping up the dispatch of orders to its dealers.

This is positive news, after the stories of loss and destruction that some dealers have to tell…

John Bulteel of Modern Mowers in Springfield Park, Durban, a particularly hard-hit area, says the fact that they deal in larger, less portable products such as tractors, lawnmowers and golf cars in addition to more portable items meant that they didn’t lose everything in the violence and looting. He is also relieved that the premises were not burned. “They came through the main gate and roller shutter doors and we believe that they were busy for an extended period of time. We lost the portable stock and also two vehicles that were driven straight through the roller doors.”

The shop was closed for the entire week of the unrest but cleaning up began the following Monday and the shop was operational the next day. It took time to replace the smashed glass, the rammed access gates, roller doors and damaged computers, as well as restocking, so Monday 2 August was the first truly ‘back-to-normal’ day.

Craig Bishop of National Power & Plant in Pinetown, a STIHL exclusive dealer, had put almost 80% of his stock out on the floor on the Friday before the unrest broke out to shoot a promotional video. “We lost 45 STIHL machines: backpack blowers, brush cutters, chainsaws,” he says. “Luckily they were not able to get into the storage area - they were probably disturbed.”

Craig and his team were back at work the Monday after the unrest, and despite the devastating losses and damage, they were kept busy rebuilding second-hand machines from scrapped stock. “Our workshop was busier than ever, especially after I posted a video on Facebook, and luckily we could still do servicing. We also still had items such as oils etc to sell, and had stock of STIHL FS 160 and FS 280 models, which are our bread and butter lines.”

Craig is upbeat despite the situation. “We have been dedicated STIHL exclusive dealers since 1996 and remain firm STIHL supporters. I’m extremely impressed at how quickly STIHL has been able to put a solution together and it has given us the confidence to remain exclusive dealers and not panic and look for alternative brands.”

Chris Odell of Midlands Power Equipment in Howick, a small town badly hit by the unrest, was also spared a 100% loss of stock as the looters did not gain access to his storeroom.

There was a similar situation at Haig’s Mower and Chainsaw Centre in Empangeni, where Len Liversage says he feels fortunate that the looters were not able - despite two attempts - to get to where most of the stock was kept. “They took everything that was displayed - it was terrible to watch women and young girls acting like crazed animals. Our chap from armed response stopped them eventually after they’d gained access by ripping out a window and its frame (the burglar bars were riveted inside) and smashed the exterior security camera. He calmed them down and asked them to leave, saying there was nothing left to steal. They did try again later, breaking into another section of the dealership, but again did not manage to get to the storeroom. They also left the office and the computers alone.” The store has been open for 50 years, Len has been there for 48, and the building will need extensive repairs. But Len is determined to bounce back.

Umgeni Lawnmowers in Springfield Park was not so lucky. According to owner Dirk Illing, “There was not a room they didn’t get into. What they didn’t take they destroyed. Even the lever arch files were stamped on and broken.”

On Monday 12 July, Dirk was contacted by Marshall Security to inform him that the business was being looted. Despite being advised to stay away from a ‘dangerously volatile’ situation, he drove first to the security company headquarters and then to the Durban North police station before heading home. He was finally able to visit his dealership on the afternoon of 14 July.

“The Massey Fergusson tractor parked outside our front roller door had been tampered with but clearly the looters were not able to start it. The roller shutter door had been prised open and was raised by 500mm. I crawled under it and was confronted with mayhem,” he says. “The entire stock of power products was gone. There was not a single unit left. No Stihl brush cutters, no Stihl chainsaws, no lawnmowers, no generators, no water pumps, no Stihl mist-blowers - nothing in the form of a power product. The lower workshop was also mayhem, with a few jobs in transit still there. All our tools were missing including the workshop compressor, drill press, stand-by generator, bench grinder, ride-on hoist.” It looked as if a forklift fork had been used to remove the extremely stout workshop window burglar bars.
The work computers were all gone, along with the till and printer. The office safe had been opened and R16 000 was missing. Dirk estimates that about 50 % of the spares stock and all the power tools were taken from the main storeroom. The room adjacent to this is where special tools are kept - “nothing was left except leg guards”. In the brush cutter repair workshop, almost all of the customer units were missing, as well as all the work spanners and power tools. Even machines in for repairs were taken.

The looters had also stripped the kitchen area, taking everything, even the tap and mixer! The gents’ toilet was pulled away from the wall and smashed; the lower workshop was used as a toilet and left in a filthy state.

Despite the devastation, Dirk refuses to throw in the towel. “We’re not running from this. We are reasonably well insured and we will forge ahead. I have been buoyed up by my customers, who have come in to the shop to personally give us promises of support.”

Hayden Hutton, managing director of Andreas STIHL (Pty) Ltd says, “Whilst poor South Africans remain the biggest victims of the recent unrest, STIHL and its dealers also suffered significant losses. The STIHL warehouse in Pietermaritzburg was looted and then burnt to the ground, resulting in an interrupted supply of our products that support customers in the forestry, landscaping, and municipal markets, which include many emerging contractors and businesses. But it’s the individual stories of loss and of staff being afraid of losing their jobs that were so distressing. These are people who are as passionate about our brand as we are, and we could not let them down.”

With support from STIHL head office in Germany, the company quickly put into effect an emergency plan to get spares and products to the country from STIHL factories around the world. STIHL head office staff members moved to new premises and STIHL secured a short term warehousing and distribution solution in anticipation of receiving the tons of airfreight as well as containers via sea.

Don’t buy stolen goods
STIHL is appealing to those who see STIHL products advertised online, especially at suspiciously low prices, to be careful of buying stolen property and to check the product serial number at www.stihl-stolen.com to see if products are stolen or are legitimately owned. Always ask for proof of ownership such as a receipt or warranty before buying second-hand goods is the advice.

“The devastation during the unrest is really heartbreaking,” said Hayden. “It is clear that South Africa needs a social compact, to ensure that this never happens again. This means not only ensuring economic opportunity for the poor, but it’s also apparent that we need a moral regeneration, especially when considering the instances of ‘wealthy’ South Africans who took part in the looting. It is heartening to see that many culprits were ‘named and shamed’ via social media, some have already appeared in court, and in some places, stolen goods have been handed in to the police by the community. The country’s commercial sector can rebuild these businesses, but they can only survive and thrive if the government and society work together.”

STIHL pledges support for subsidiary in South Africa

Safety of staff is the company’s top priority as STIHL pledges to rebuild buildings damaged by looters during the recent unrest in South Africa, retain staff and support dealers ...

“For us as a family-owned company, the protection and safety of our employees is our top priority” says Dr Nikolas Stihl, Chairman of the STIHL Advisory Board and Supervisory Board. “We are shocked and appalled by the images coming out of South Africa. Parts of the country have been affected by severe rioting, violence and looting. The region in and around Durban has also been affected – as has our South African subsidiary ANDREAS STIHL Ltd. in Pietermaritzburg. We are pleased that all of the employees and their families are unharmed.”

The STIHL SA warehouse in Pietermaritzburg has been completely destroyed and its office building severely damaged as a result of the unrest and looting. STIHL headquarters in Germany has set up a crisis team to organise measures for the protection and well-being of the subsidiary’s roughly 40 employees in cooperation with Hayden Hutton, the Managing Director of STIHL South Africa.

Commitment to South Africa reaffirmed: STIHL guarantees jobs and supports dealers
“Our subsidiary in South Africa will continue to exist going forward. No employees will lose their jobs due to this unusual situation. On the contrary, we will rebuild STIHL South Africa. To do so, we need the expertise and dedication of our staff. We will make sure that our customers can continue to buy and use STIHL products in the future,” said Dr Stihl.

The STIHL subsidiary in South Africa supplies local dealers with products. The company has also pledged to help dealers. Right now, it is working on ways to supply dealers with its products in the short to medium term. Containers are being shipped to the country, with plans in place to also send equipment to South Africa by air.

The STIHL Group develops, manufactures, and distributes outdoor power equipment for forestry, agriculture, landscaping and construction sectors.