A first in South Africa’s forestry industry

November 12, 2012

A conversation with Thembi Nkwana, the first woman to be appointed a plantation manager at KLF ...


Komatiland Forest's first woman plantation manager, Thembi Nkwana, brings something extra to forestry.

 Thembi Nkwana is the first woman to be appointed a plantation manager at Komatiland Forests, and probably the first woman to hold such a position in the whole South African forestry industry. It is a very tough job, requiring a person with all-round ability and experience that can motivate and manage a team of employees and contractors, maintain good relationships with neighbours and stakeholders, AND manage forestry operations.

The plantation manager is basically responsible for everything that happens on the plantation, including meeting production and quality targets, maintaining FSC certification, protecting the trees and equipment from wildfires, managing budgets and expenditure and ensuring a happy and motivated team.

This position has traditionally been filled by men, and forestry has long been widely regarded as a 'man's job'. But nowadays, there are many more women, like Thembi, choosing a career in forestry. And why not! They have the skills and the ability – and they bring a little something extra to the job that comes with being a woman.

Thembi has gained wide experience since graduating from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University with a National Diploma in Forestry in 2006, getting exposure to different aspects of forestry operations.

She joined PG Bison (Funeray Estate) in 2006 as silviculture forester, and was then appointed transport manager at BG Bison in Ugie from 2007 to 2009.

She joined KLF in 2009 as harvesting forester at Roburnia plantation and later transferred to Berlin plantation as silviculture forester.

In April 2012, she was promoted to plantation manager at Belfast plantation.

Komatiland Forests, a subsidiary of SAFCOL, is a state owned company that manages timberland in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces of South Africa, with around 128 000 ha under timber, mainly pine, for use as saw timber.

SA Forestry magazine spoke to Thembi to find out about her job, and how she copes in this male-dominated world:

SAF: Tell us a bit about the Belfast plantation that you manage.

Thembi: Belfast is about 5 000 ha with 4 500 ha planted. We also manage Pan plantation, which is about 50 km away from Belfast, and that is an additional 1 200 ha. We plant pine, eucalyptus and wattle. The harvesting is done by our own team. We fell the trees with chainsaws and use a skidder for extracting the logs after clearfelling, and a tractor with a winch for extracting thinnings. The silviculture is done by both own ops and contractors.

Belfast plantation has a total of 44 people and the contractor has 20 people as well as the strike attack team (for stopping fires). We also have a full-time Working on Fire team who use our premises as their base and therefore fall under our management.

SAF: Have there been any serious fires at Belfast so far this year?

Thembi: We haven't had any serious fires as yet, but looking at previous years, most fires in Belfast occur from mid-August right through to early November.

SAF: What are the main challenges for forestry at Belfast?

Thembi: Firstly, it is surrounded by farms. We have to build relationships with them as we have to burn most of our fire belts with them. Getting all of them to sign fire agreements is a challenge. Tree survival is also a big problem in Belfast, especially at Pan. This is mainly because of the extremely cold winters. Also, because it is a small plantation, resources are limited.

SAF: What are the main challenges for you as a woman operating in a male-dominated industry, and how do you cope with that?

Thembi: I have been working in a male-dominated industry for so long that I don't feel intimidated anymore. When I did my practical training at Brooklands plantation in 2005, even the person who worked in the kitchen was a male so I quickly had to outgrow my fears and cope with being the only female. I still get people who are resistant to this change, but I guess in time they will come around. I try to ignore minor nasty comments.

I also try to acquire as much knowledge as I can to ensure that I know what I am doing. When I was still a harvesting forester at Roburnia, Benno Krieg once told me that if I want people to take me seriously, I must have more knowledge than them. So I always read a lot and ask a lot of questions. I must say that instead of being intimidated, I get a lot of help, especially from my previous manager. I do stand my ground if a situation calls for it, though.

I also have a very supportive district manager (David Mbulaheni). He allows me to think and make my own decisions. He treats me the same as any one of his plantation managers and not like a glass that is about to break. For the first time in my career, I am allowed to disagree – with a lot of supporting documentation, though! As women in this male-dominated industry, we need to be treated as such. We do not get motivated if we feel that managers are scared to reprimand us. We need to feel that we are trusted to do our job.

SAF: What special benefits do you as a woman bring to the forestry operations?

Thembi: Breaking the stereotype and proving that I can do it. Women are humble, strict and very firm leaders. We have got the ability to listen and we are very emotionally intelligent. We carry ourselves in a dignified manner and take pride in our work. When I left Berlin and the workers bid me farewell, they said: "We are not only losing a good forester, but we are also losing a mother''. Looking at all the female foresters in our company, I can proudly say that we deliver beyond expectations.

SAF: Would you encourage other women to pursue forestry as a career, and why?

Thembi: I would definitely encourage more women to join the forestry industry. It is a challenging industry and it is constantly growing. It does, however, have its challenges like fire standby, fire fighting and also if you get married and have to live far from your family. I was fortunate that I got married and my husband was willing to move to the plantation with me. Companies also assist, where possible, in helping with transfers to the nearest plantation to enable one to live with one's family.

The plantation manager of KLF's Berlin plantation, At Oosthuizen, always said: "Forestry is not just a job, it is a lifestyle and one's heart has to be in the right place in order to add value". There are a lot of opportunities and currently there is a big focus on women in the industry. It is one of the industries where you can still get a job, make a good living and never get bored!

SAF: How do you balance family life with your commitments as plantation manager for Belfast?

Thembi: I have got a very busy one-and-a-half-year-old boy. I must admit it is difficult to create a balance. When I was a silviculture forester at Berlin I had to burn fire breaks while I was pregnant and we would burn until very late at times. I always try to go home and cook for my family, sometimes even if I am very tired. I prepare my husband's lunch and try to always take care of him. I always acknowledge the fact that although I am a forester, I am also a wife and a mother and those roles also come with their set of duties.

I try to spend as much time as I can with my family. I have a full time helper but I try to be involved in my baby's life. My husband is not very out-going so it helps because he doesn't mind spending a weekend at home when I am on standby. My faith keeps me grounded and I always draw strength from God.



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