Forestry is often overlooked as a form of agriculture but is in essence tree farming at its best. To succeed, one needs patience and a very good sense of long-term planning. It’s a sector in which Mlungisi Bushula has found his feet since 2013. Engela Duvenage writes about the 32-year old’s business plans, which now also include the wildlife sector and crop production in the Eastern Cape.
“Forestry isn’t your normal farming operation, but it requires just as much hard work,” notes Mlungisi Bushula, chief executive officer of SA Fine-Tuned Trading (SAFTT).
He is standing amid a towering plantation of bottle green pine trees near Stutterheim in the Amathole District Municipality in the Eastern Cape. The air is infused with the smell of pine needles. Nearby, one of his crew is expertly manoeuvring a yellow loader to gather a dozen logs at a time.
The 100% black-youth-owned company SAFTT has been operational since 2013. It does contract harvesting on behalf of the Amatola Forestry Company and the likes.
“We clean about 1 200 cubic meters per month by taking out inferior trees. We are making space for the ones that will stay on the land for the full maturity term, to grow to about 30 years old. It is all part of Amatola’s forestry management plan.”
Logs, along with harvested gum trees, are sold to local timber companies. SAFTT supplies around 480 tons of pulp wood to Durban Woodchips. It can produce up to 20 000 units of droppers, laths, fencing poles and transmission poles per month. Clients include Natal Timber Cooperation, SAPPI Saiccor, Indigenous Timbers, PG Bison, Rance Timbers, Pellet Tech, Stutt Poles and Yonder Lea Timbers.
SAFTT manages commercial forest plantations around Stutterheim. Elsewhere, invasive wattle trees are harvested to convert cleaned land into commercial plantations. A 350-hectare farm in the Ndakana area is being rehabilitated.
“We build partnerships with surrounding communities that have wood lots and are turning these into commercial plantations. We work with the communities to empower them to manage their own plantations while we create a market to absorb the trees being produced. We are doing this on a mentorship basis and provide training.”
SAFTT won the small-scale forestry division of the 2016 National Youth in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Awards, and in 2019 also the competition’s large-scale category. It was a finalist in the 2018 National Productivity SA Awards. These successes also provided Mlungisi with the opportunity to visit China twice for youth business and forestry management and development seminars.
Mlungisi appreciated the support of the Industrial Development Cooperation (IDC) – first by backing the development of SAFTT’s business plan, and more recently providing R3,3 million to upscale its harvesting operations.
“They do not only lend you money; they become part of your business. They advise you and give business support.
“I did not start out in agriculture or forestry. I am firstly a businessperson. When they saw my passion to develop my business, they wanted us to be sustainable.”
This led to a technical partnership agreement with Rance Timbers and the Amatola Forestry Company in Stutterheim under their Enterprise Development and Mentorship programme.
“John Rance has been instrumental as my mentor. I met him when we started building on our business model and our relationship grew.”
Mlungisi has since also learnt valuable lessons from John about the hunting and tourism sector. He is currently developing a wildlife operation with a lodge and possible buffalo breeding facility on land adjacent to a private reserve owned by Rance Safaris. It is supported by Rance Rural Development (Pty) Ltd.
“We already have a commitment from SanParks for wildlife donations once our fences are up.”
The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries provided R20 million to increase the region’s biodiversity.
“We want to transform the untransformed wildlife industry and empower the livelihoods of surrounding communities,” says Mlungisi, who is the deputy chairperson of African Game Ranchers in South Africa.
His wife, accountant Cingiwe, oversees HR and administrative matters as the company’s chief financial officer. She also runs a consultancy business.
“I am blessed and grateful that she is in my life. She came at a time when I needed to be rooted, grounded and focused. She not only became my life partner, but also my business partner.
“I don’t think I could have come so far if it was not for her. I believe in the saying that behind every successful man there is a very powerful woman,” he says with a twinkle in the eye.
“Respecting each other’s roles works for us,” adds Cingiwe. The entrepreneurial couple has big dreams. This includes expanding their forest-harvesting and replanting operations, establishing themselves in the pole-treating business, and setting up an irrigation project to grow crops such as sweet chilli peppers and lucerne.
“In five years, I’d like to see SA Fine-Tuned Trading having 100 employees. We have that written on our vision board,” Cingiwe reveals.
SAFTT currently employes seven permanent staff and creates 24 temporary jobs in the form of harvesting permits. Nine loaders work on a temporary basis to load superlink trucks.
“It’s not only about giving people jobs, but about exposing them to the industry they are in. We are looking for people who will learn from us and be able to start their own businesses,” adds Cingiwe. They want to get local communities involved in business ventures, such as the growing of peppadews, and producing charcoal and honey.
“I became involved in agriculture and forestry when I was about 25 years old. There was a lot of roadblocks, red tape and barriers to entry in terms of land access and finances for this type of operation.”
Helping younger people more easily gain a footprint in the business sector is therefore important to Mlungisi, who chairs Youth in Agriculture and Rural Development in the Eastern Cape. He often remembers life lessons and business examples set by his grandfather and father. It was his grandfather who recognised the makings of an agriculturalist in him, when as a young adult he could not see it himself.
After matriculating in 2004, Mlungisi had his sights set on becoming a city slicker. He studied Public Management at the Nelson Mandela University, and qualified as a financial advisor after studying Financial Management and Advisory Services through Damelin and Milpark Business. He started working for a local bank, but his grandfather, a farmer, had other plans.
“Whenever he came to town he’d pass by the bank, and say that I needed to work for him, as he was losing energy and needed my help.”
Mlungisi eventually joined him, but not full-time. Then his grandfather started talking about selling the farm.
“I convinced him to keep it and gave him business models of what we could do. He wanted to support me. Forest harvesting was part of the plan.”
Fate however intervened. The man who taught Mlungisi to milk cows as a youngster passed away six months after they decided to help each other. Following family strife about his grandfather’s land, Mlungisi looked further afield at securing contracts with different land-use options.
“We are trying to build a massive operation here, with many moving parts. A rainbow has many colours, but if you separate the colours, it is no longer a rainbow. We want to represent the rainbow nation through the partnerships we are building.”