The story of Mhlekazi Forestry, which has secured a five-year contract to do silviculture and fire fighting work for Sappi in KwaZulu-Natal south, provides clear evidence that investing in the development of local, community-based entrepreneurs brings a multitude of benefits for business, for the individual entrepreneur – and for the country at large. It also demonstrates that the entrepreneurs are out there; they need to be identified, provided with opportunities and support and they can flourish.
Simon Phoswa, better known as ‘Mhlekazi’, is one of those irrepressible entrepreneurs who has made the transition from the informal to the formal economic sector, creating sustainable jobs in the rural areas where unemployment is at an all-time high.
Mhlekazi grew up in the southern KZN hinterland and left school early to earn a living and help support his family. He got a heavy duty license and landed a job as a truck driver for a local forestry company. He proved himself to be more than capable and was subsequently promoted to silviculture foreman. This company was eventually bought out by Sappi. Soon thereafter Sappi decided to outsource their forestry operations, and Mhlekazi was retrenched along with many other forestry workers. This led to him securing a job as a manager with a silviculture contracting business.
When this business closed its doors, Mhlekazi found himself out in the cold once again, and so established his own contracting business. He started off doing work for small-scale growers participating in Sappi’s Khulisa programme, as well as the occasional ‘ad hoc’ contract for Sappi.
Then in 2018 Sappi established an Enterprise and Supplier Development (ESD) unit to take on the development of local community-based suppliers to provide substance to its vision of building strong, resilient communities in the areas where it operates. The logic behind this strategy is based on Sappi’s Shared Value Principles and the UN Sustainable Development Goals aimed at building thriving local communities. A key part of the strategy involves transforming Sappi’s supply chain to include local community-based SMEs.
Mhlekazi was a prime candidate for this programme. He already had a contracting business embedded in the local Richmond community, understood silvicultural operations inside out and knew Sappi’s southern KZN plantations like the back of his hand. Moreover, he had the essential traits required to be an entrepreneur: he’s a self-starter with plenty of passion, a strong work ethic, is solutions-oriented, has a never-give-up attitude and natural leadership skills. These are character-defining traits that you can’t easily teach to someone - you either have them or you don’t.
Mhlekazi has them in spades. He is a larger than life character and is extremely well known and respected by people from all walks of life in the region. He was already running a contracting business which employed 40 people, owned a herd of cattle and was operating two taxis.
Sappi’s ESD team started working with Mhlekazi, providing him with the tools and the skills he would need to make it as a Sappi contractor. When Sappi put out its silviculture tender for its business unit KZN South in 2021, Mhlekazi threw his hat into the ring and participated in the pitching process like any other aspirant contractor.
According to reports his presentation was top notch and he was successful in persuading the Sappi team that he was indeed the right man for the job. Mhlekazi Forestry (Pty) Ltd duly secured a five-year contract responsible for silvicultural operations and fire fighting services. Sappi’s Southern KZN business unit includes some 6 400 ha of Eucalypts plantations, supplying fibre to the massive Sappi-Saiccor mill in Umkomaas.
Mhlekazi Forestry currently employs 80 people sourced from local communities, and does land prep and plants around 600 ha a year, as well as performing fire fighting services. His staff has received training in all the core silvicultural activities and are well drilled in terms of health and safety requirements. Sappi sets high standards for its silviculture operations and the Mhlekazi team has to be spot on when it comes to weeding, pitting and planting.
Mhlekazi has a long-term vision and has brought his son, Sphesihle, into the business, and is assisted by one of his daughters, Nonsikelelo.
His team recently swept the boards in Sappi’s in-house regional fire-fighting competition, underlining the importance of injecting fresh new energy into this crucial aspect of forestry operations.
"The Sappi team has played a crucial role in our growth and development, and have been instrumental in opening doors for our business, providing business support, guidance and encouragement. We truly value the support from Sappi,” says Mhlekazi.
Safety is an integral part of Mhlekazi Forestry, and Mhlekazi believes this has played a pivotal role in his business longevity.
"Many of our peers that started with us have not sustained their business because they neglected safety in their operations. We prioritise and value safety in our business," he says.
Mhlekazi Forestry gets on-going support from Sappi’s ESD team, which brings in specialists from inside the company to provide advice, training and mentoring when required. It is a collaborative effort. They also utilise the services of a number of external organisations that provide specialised training, business and financial resources and expertise designed to support emerging SMEs.
Sappi’s local Community Services Officer Bongani Hadebe said that having Mhlekazi Forestry on board was important to strengthen Sappi’s standing in the wider community, and that providing sustainable jobs for local people was playing a vital role in building those communities and boosting the local economy.
This desire to help local communities to flourish, was one of the main reasons that Sappi established a dedicated ESD unit tasked with helping to incorporate small and medium enterprises into the mainstream economy.
This initiative has been further bolstered by the creation of a dedicated multidisciplinary team within Sappi comprised of ESD, Human Resources and Corporate Communications members, in a forum known as the Community Management Committee (CMC) at its business units. The purpose of the CMC is to identify shared value opportunities that help identify and support local entrepreneurs as well as to promote the sourcing of goods and services from local suppliers where possible.