Bringing something extra to harvesting contracting
Forestry contracting is a tough business, and being a harvesting contractor is the toughest. You have to deliver your timber to roadside day after day, rain, hail or snow, to ensure that the timber flows and the logistics chain remains unbroken. Imagine my surprise, then, to find a mother of three in charge of a harvesting operation deep in the Matiwane plantation, between Ugie and Mthata, during a recent visit to this remote corner of the Eastern Cape.
Harvesting contractor Monica Harper in a gum compartment at Matiwane Plantation, Eastern Cape.
Matiwane is operated by Singisi Forest Products, a subsidiary of Merensky Holdings. Most of the trees are pine species, which supply the raw material for the nearby Langeni sawmill. However, there are several compartments of Eucalyptus in the plantation, and it is here that I found Monica and her team hard at work felling, de-branching, cross-cutting, stripping off the bark and stacking timber in neat piles at roadside.
With no formal forestry training, Monica started working with a harvesting contractor at PG Bison's North Eastern Cape Forests a few years ago. When her partner left the operation, Monica continued on her own, and impressed the PG Bison team with her commitment and ability in this tough environment.
However, that contract was winding down, and she was recommended to the Singisi forestry team who were looking for a contractor to harvest their gum compartments. Thus, in mid-2012, Monica signed a short-term harvesting contract with Singisi and has been busy at Matiwane ever since with a team of 21 people.
It is a fairly typical manual operation, felling, de-branching and cross-cutting with chainsaws, and stripping the bark and stacking timber by hand. However, Monica's approach is a bit different from the norm in that she goes out of her way to ensure that her workers are not only productive, but also as happy and as comfortable as possible in the circumstances.
When the weather is blazing hot and she can see the workers tiring, she calls a halt to work and takes them into the deep shade to cool down and rest for a few minutes. She always takes iced water to the plantation and makes sure the workers are well hydrated. After a cold drink they feel rejuvenated and go back to work with renewed vigour.
"Productivity doesn't suffer when I do that – it actually improves and we can get more done," says Monica.
The iced water is such a small thing, and it is so easy – she just puts a few two litre cool drink bottles filled with water in her freezer every night, and by morning its frozen, and keeps cold all day. It's small things like this that can make a difference.
"I have a good understanding of the workers, and try to have this 'ubuntu' thing," explained Monica. "I have a small team and I try to keep them happy."
Monica is one of those contractors who is very hands-on. She is personally present at the work site every single day from dawn to 4 pm when they knock off, and only leaves the team occasionally when she has urgent business to attend to. Her son Jason and his wife Melissa work with her. They help out with the supervision and motivation, and aren't afraid to do a bit of manual work as well to make sure they reach their target of around 30 tons timber stacked at roadside per day.
Monica has a stable workforce which helps her operation to sustain the required levels of productivity and quality. She pays a basic wage, and also offers cash prizes to the best performing teams in monthly competitions to spice things up a bit.
She works well with the Singisi harvesting forester, Ian Jarrett, and isn't afraid to ask for advice or assistance when needed. From time to time, Ian brings in the forwarder or Bell to help extract the timber from in-field when the going gets tough.
"I've been a contractor myself and I know how hard it is so I am happy to help out when it's needed," said Ian.
To date, Monica has been unable to access finance to purchase the equipment that she needs to upgrade her operation. She says the banks won't give her a loan because she doesn't have the required security to back it up.
Monica, who comes originally from Lesotho, has lived in Durban, Kokstad and East London. Apart from Jason, who is her eldest, she has two kids still at school.
She loves forestry and reads manuals, handbooks, and whatever literature she can find that's relevant to her job, from cover to cover. She's self-taught, self-motivated and committed, and brings something extra – a woman's touch – to what is undoubtedly one of the toughest jobs in forestry.
|Nkosiphendulo Zwelonke enjoys a swig of iced water to cool down.
|Jason, Melissa and Monica Harper, with Singisi's harvesting forester, Ian Jarrett.
|Stripping bark from standing trees prior to felling has proven to be the most effective de-barking method for Monica's team.
Published in December 2012