A charcoal producer on top of the world

On a chilly Friday in June, Bongiwe Mafuya pulled on her facemask and signed an agreement with FSC® outside the ERS offices near Matatiele. She was joining the CMO Group Scheme, through which FSC-certified charcoal from her emerging business, KwaBhaca Nature Solutions (KwaBhaca means the home of the Bhaca tribe), will be sold into export markets.

Bongi, as her friends call her, was on top of the world – not just because she was in the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains. She had found what she’d been looking for: a sustainable way to restore the environment and uplift her people.

“I am going to be clearing wattle from rangelands in a way that benefits the community. This is what I’ve been working for, and longed for, all these years. Our community might be in the most remote rural area, but we can make a mark on the world.”

Bongi returned home a decade ago after working in game reserves as an executive chef and then a trained game ranger. “I was so worried. The environment was in such a bad state,” she explains. Wattle had covered much of the grasslands where cattle once grazed, drying up the streams she remembered flowing in her childhood.

In response, she formed a rangeland management group and village grazing associations. At an Umzimvubu Catchment Partnership meeting in 2016, she met Jules Newton from Avocado Vision and became a trainer, focusing first on financial literacy in grazing associations to help livestock farmers improve yields at auctions.

“I started the business of clearing wattle, first doing logging. It was not a success, but it made me want to do more and better,” she says. Making charcoal from cleared wattle was the more and better option, and Bongi took six young people from the logging enterprise to work on charcoal. “I wanted to do things differently this time, and I needed assurance that there would be a market for our products.”

Avocado Vision opened the door to contact with FSC. “An FSC consultant came and gave me the thumbs up, but there were some major issues I had to attend to during the initial visit,” Bongi explains. “My team and I knew that our wonderful indigenous forests of mostly yellowwood were precious, and we worked out where we would clear wattle for charcoal.

“When the FSC consultant came back, they were satisfied. We will do some training, including chainsaw use, applying chemicals, first aid, and making quality charcoal. Then it’s all systems go. I can’t wait to see our first batch of charcoal going out to the market and the team getting their first salary.”
Already her community is seeing some benefits. “We selected and cleared a rangeland for our first charcoal training,” Bongi says. “We’ve seen the grass coming back. We debarked and have not seen regrowth. We brought livestock in. They eat, hoof and stamp, urinate and bring grass in their dung from where they’ve eaten.”

With rangelands restored, “the community can go back to their way of life, ploughing and producing good livestock and making good money at auctions”
Bongi expects that her venture will grow to over 50 people. “We’ll expand, team by team, and I’m hoping that people will see the value in what we are doing and set up their own businesses – and not just charcoal producers. This will be a legacy for everybody in the community, even those not yet born.”

She adds that this could be a turning point for her area, where unemployment and illiteracy are high. She wants to set aside funds from her charcoal business to rebuild the local school, destroyed by a tornado a few years ago. “Children are the custodians of our wetlands and grasslands. If we do nothing, they will learn from us that we do not help each other. We need more environmentalists and scientists coming from these remote areas.”

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