DURBAN 22-02-2012 Mabatho Khoza planting trees at His Home in Mzimela Community, near Mthunzini. Picture by: S'bonelo Ngcobo

A 16-year-old KwaZulu-Natal orphan and “tree-preneur” has become a role model to his community by teaching people about the importance of conservation, and he received a special mention by Premier Zweli Mkhize last week.

Mabutho Khoza, of Mzimela, near Mtunzini, was hailed as a “shining star” by Mkhize during his State of the Province address.

Mkhize said: “There is a shining star already – Mabutho Khoza, a 16-year-old orphan from Mtunzini. He is a pioneer of the ‘one child, one fruit tree initiative’, who has planted more than 3 000 trees.”

The Grade 9 pupil has been receiving profits from the Indigenous Trees for Life pro-ject, which was started by the Wild Lands Conservation Trust in 2006.

Since then, the project has grown and received support from the Office of the Premier, Department of Public Works and various companies. Zakhele Ngcobo, the head of the project, which runs throughout Zululand, said he was proud of Mabutho.

Ngcobo said the project involved teaching communities to plant trees and rewarding them for it.

“People plant the trees and they receive basic needs in return (like) food, building material such as cement, water tanks and even university fees.”

He described Mabutho as a hard worker.

Mabutho said he had loved nature since he was young.

“When you grow up in a rural area and have beautiful nature and trees around you, it is important to conserve it,” he said. “The project grew my love for nature. I used be a naughty boy, but now I am grounded.

“It felt good to help support my family by extending the house.

“I have learnt to be responsible and have become a man.”

With dreams of owning his own nursery, he wants to pursue environmental studies at tertiary level.

Mabutho was named “tree-preneur” for 2010/11 and also participated in the Imfolozi Community Challenge, a 12.5km run, to raise awareness about rhino poaching.

His guardian, Sephronia Khoza, said Mabutho had come a long way from the time she started taking care of him when he was five months old.

“He has matured into a gentleman. He makes me very proud. We plant together as a family,” she said.

“His love for trees is amazing. As soon as he returns from school, he changes his clothing and waters the trees. He then studies and goes back to the trees,” she said.

The indigenous trees are taken to nurseries and reforested throughout Zululand.

Ngcobo said three pupils were studying at university thanks to the money they had made from the project.