Cape Town - Sawdust is flying and the noise is deafening, but Ricardo Pieterse is concentrating intently as he operates the powerful mobile saw to rip up a hefty gum log nearly 3m long.

The 28-year-old Knysna worker, protected by safety goggles and ear-plugs, is using the saw to cut chunky 2.8m lengths of wood – technically, he’s canting the log – that some of his colleagues will run through another saw to produce planks.

These planks will in turn be processed and turned into high-quality school desks that, for some pupils in rural schools in places like the former Transkei and North West Province, will be the first they have ever sat in.

Pieter Visser, an independent contractor who employs Pieterse as part of his team, says their work is “very, very exciting” because he’s been to some of these schools, and seen pupils having to use each other’s backs as a writing surface.

“The kids were ecstatic, really – they were very proud to have their desks because at some of those schools, I promise you, you can’t believe what those kids are sitting at (now). It was very, very nice to see the joy on their faces,” he says.

Visser and Pieterse are among the 141 people working at the Farleigh Eco-Furniture Factory in the foothills of the Outeniqua mountains above Sedgefield, close to the historic hamlet of Barrington.

Farleigh was a forestry station of the former government forestry department, but since 2006 it’s been part of the Garden Route National Park, following the government’s decision to lease the state pine plantations in this area to private enterprise (Cape Pine), and to incorporate these properties into the park once the pines have been felled.

In terms of the lease agreement, commercially unusable pines and the gum trees that were used as firebreaks in the plantations should be felled and left to decompose as part of the properties’ rehabilitation to nature area. But that’s a serious waste of a potentially valuable natural resource, even if it doesn’t meet commercial timber industry standards.

So the government’s innovative Working for Water programme stepped in and came up with the desk-manufacturing project, based on its own principles of achieving a number of positive outcomes.

These include the removal of water-guzzling alien and invasive plants; creating work opportunities for the unemployed, especially women and young people; providing training that will allow some of them to develop into independent contractors; and, where possible, creating socially useful items from what would have been waste products.

The Farleigh Eco-Furniture Factory, consisting of a wet mill, dry mill, storage facilities and administrative centre, is the first of five such facilities being established around the country, explains mill manager Herman Jungbauer-Rudman.

It doesn’t yet have its own kiln, and this part of the production is outsourced to commercial timber operators.

Jungbauer-Rudman manages the mill in terms of the parks agency’s Biodiversity Social Projects initiative which is the implementing agent for Working for Water.

“This is the first factory and was opened three years ago. There’s also one in Durban, in Heidelberg and at Graskop, and they’re opening another in Ga-Rankuwa (north of Pretoria),” he explains.

Because SANParks is the implementing agent for the factory, timber was first harvested from invasive alien trees cleared from its existing property. “Now we’re getting all the timber from the old fire breaks in the form of bluegum belts that surround the pine plantations as Cape Pine proceed with their exit strategy. Instead of just cutting the gums down to waste, we’ve got an agreement that they leave them standing and we’ll clear them. It’s predominantly gum, but we do some pine as well.”

There are 141 people employed on the Farleigh project that ranges from the initial clearing and timber harvesting, through to the wet mill where the logs are planked before being placed in kilns to dry, and then to the dry mill where the planks are processed.

There’s also a satellite factory at nearby Rheenendal, employing 47 people, of whom just one is a man – “Our ‘Super Girl’ team”, quips Jungbauer-Rudman.

While most of the wood is used to create school desks for the national Basic Education Department, the factory also produces a small range of other items, including inlaid chess tables.

“These are eco-desks, so the wood is basically non-commercial – timber the normal (commercial) harvesters wouldn’t touch, and the invasive stuff no one else wants,” says Jungbauer-Rudman.

The desks’ steel frames are manufactured elsewhere and the eco-factory makes the four wooden components – the seat, back, front and the top. These components are processed, spray-painted and wrapped, ready for sending out.

The frames are sent separately by the suppliers, and the desks are assembled at the schools.

“We’ve just finished an operation in the Mthatha, Port St Johns and Lusikisiki area where we delivered in the region of 24 000 desks to about 250 schools, so that was quite something,” says Jungbauer-Rudman.

“It was our first big operation, and we’re now delivering about 25 500 desks to the North West province. When we’re finished that, we’re going back to the (Eastern Cape).

“It was really gratifying to see (the desk delivery) – there was one rural school that had never had desks before. Their matric pass rate last year was 98 percent and the pupils wrote all their three-hour exams on their laps. They were very, very grateful when they received these desks.

“It’s really a good feeling to see the kids’ faces and the teachers’ faces when they get the desks – it’s just amazing.”

The factory is processing up to 100 desks a day, but Jungbauer-Rudman hopes to push this to as many as 150 when their kiln problems are resolved. It takes about two months between felling a tree and having the wooden components of the desk ready for delivery.

In keeping with the Working for Water employment principles developed under the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme, the Farleigh project managers were at pains to ensure that everyone who got a job there was unemployed at the time. Visser, for example, was unemployed for “three, almost four years” before signing on, while Pieterse had previously only found some work as a barman.

Vernecia Appels, a 30-year-old single mother of an 11-year-old son, stays with her mother in the Knysna suburb of Hornley. Her only previous employment was a six-month contract with the Knysna municipality.

Promising individuals are also trained and encouraged to become emerging contractors and then fully-fledged independent contractors who employ other workers in their teams.

One of them at Farleigh is Hanna (Johanna) Prinsloo, a 28-year-old who is married with two children – a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old daughter.

This was her first job, and she’s already become an independent contractor employing 21 people.

“All the contractors have been selected from that core group we got right in the beginning,” says Jungbauer-Rudman. “They all own their own vehicles now, and their own computers and printers. They’re on e-mail – they’re doing things a lot of them didn’t even know about previously.

“It’s incredibly rewarding. You’re working with people who had absolutely no skills to start with, and they built basically all the infrastructure here at Farleigh when we started.

“The skills these guys develop are absolutely phenomenal.”

The eco-furniture project is not without its critics, notably some of the commercial timber producers and furniture makers who argue it is competing with them unfairly – particularly because of its “subsidised” jobs and guaranteed government contracts.

Working for Water programme director Dr Guy Preston acknowledges some legitimate concerns, and negotiations are continuing between the government and representatives of the timber and furniture manufacturing industries.

Preston says he’s confident they can reach consensus.

“We’re attracted by their concept of ‘saving a job in creating a job’ through a partnership approach involving their doing the dry mill and finishing work on contract to us, and we’re exploring this option with them.”

At Farleigh, in the meantime, the work continues.

“It’s something you might expect me to say, but I’m really proud, these guys are amazing,” says Jungbauer-Rudman. “You can ask them to do anything… well, as a matter of fact, you don’t even have to ask them. They work, totally – nobody can come to this factory and say these guys are sitting around doing nothing. They’re really phenomenal and I’m seriously proud of them.”

[email protected]

John Yeld, Weekend Argus