Farming project in Ugie growing in strength and size

DECEMBER 1, 2015

A flagship Eastern Cape farming project is set to quadruple in size - and significantly increase its employment potential - after its patron, leading SA diversified timber company PG Bison, committed to extend land provided to the project by 6.5 hectares.

Plans are also already afoot to formalise the 13 employees of the Ugie Agricultural Social Project (UASP) into a co-operative business, placing the ownership and decision making power firmly in local hands.

PG Bison started the farming project in 2014 in partnership with the Joe Gqabi District Municipality, to both create employment and provide food security for local townships.

This was part of a broader collaboration between the company and the provincial and local governments, that has seen a total investment of more than R2.1 billion injected into the Elundini Local Municipality (Ugie / Maclear) since 2013. This amount includes the cost of PG Bison's new board plant (constructed at R1.3 billion), occupying 36 hectares of the 64-hectare site, as well as other surrounding infrastructure and services.

The initial 1.5 hectare section made available for the farming project is part of a larger piece of disused farmland found not to be suitable for forestry. This is now to be enlarged to 8 hectares.

Committed to sustainable rural development

Gerhard Victor, PG Bison's CEO, emphasised that the farming project is one of an array of corporate social investment initiatives whereby the company uses its footprint to economically empower locals.

To provide support services for the Ugie plant alone, 2 000 job opportunities have been created among 30 local, black-owned businesses. More than 80% of the labour and ownership in these businesses is local.

“What a joy to see locals literally dig in and come up with a farming venture that has the promise of creating significant employment and addressing food security. This is locally driven, sustainable empowerment.

“And we are committed to play our part to make this work. That is why we have decided to enlarge the tract of land provided to the project.”

Victor says timber plants and plantations are ideally situated to contribute to economic development as they are by definition situated in rural areas.

“It goes without saying that these areas face significant challenges in education, healthcare and employment. Many forestry companies – including PG Bison – are making investments in ways that stimulate locally owned small enterprise development,” he explains.

Flagship farm is "everybody's project"

Working with his hands in the soil that his ancestors used to cultivate, is a spiritual process for Mr Julius Toli, ward committee member and member of the farming project.

The fact that the small farm has turned into a veritable Garden of Eden within only one year, supplying the local hospitality industry with roughly 50 000 heads of cabbage, 5 000 spinach plants and hundreds of heads of broccoli, cabbage and other veggies, is a bonus.

Toli was tasked to help find the initial employees to get the farming venture off the ground. He made sure that he invited participants from all areas of the local township, “because it is everybody's project.”

Of the current thirteen employees, only three have some level of schooling and only Toli has matriculated.

The farm has not only provided salaries for its employees but has also been able to generate enough savings that this year's seeds and fertilizer could be bought in cash. Self-sustainability is, therefore, within reach.

“This project is really working. In this first year they really tested us, but we have passed.

"This farm has a place in people's hearts. They enjoy it and it has made a change in our community already. And the feedback we get is that our veg is of a better quality than anything in town."

Yearning for growth

Toli yearns for more than vegetables, though. He wants to see the farm extended so more people can be employed. This, he says, will not just put food on tables, but restore the community's dignity.

“It is huge for us to be working the land. If we can get more land, we will surprise you.”

Mr Tony Tegg, PG Bison's nursery manager, who doubles up as supervisor and trainer for the farming initiative, is currently engaging with the project's team to determine how many full-time employment oportunities the farm can sustain.

“It may not be as easy as saying that each hectare can sustain 13 people. But we will definitely be able to sustain more jobs; especially when it comes to harvesting seasonal crops.”

PG Bison at a glance

PG Bison is a South African company, with South African owners and headquartered in Wynberg, Johannesburg. The company is a subsidiary of KAP Industrial Holdings, a Level 3 B-BBEE contributor.

Its board plants and plantations (it owns 89 000 hectares of land, 41 100 of which is afforested) are scattered across Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape provinces.

Although the company is a significant employer with close to 1 800 people on its payroll, thousands more are employed by small businesses that provide supporting services to its plants.