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Seeing The Wood For The Trees

Understanding the economic potential in biomass – the woody material felled during tree-clearing clearance operations.

We know that alien vegetation in South Africa sucks up water and crowds out indigenous vegetation, which is why the government spends close to R2 billion a year clearing catchment areas.

But what South Africa is only starting to wake up to is the enormous economic potential in the woody material (or biomass) felled during these clearance operations.

This is why the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in South Africa teamed up with the Western Cape’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP) to host South Africa’s first Alien Vegetation Biomass Expo in Stellenbosch in June this year.

The gathering brought together environmentalists, economists and entrepreneurs, and showcased some of the potential uses for this woody material.

Here are just a few examples of the innovations that were on display:

Beautiful Biochar

If you are keen on growing your own veggies, then lay your hands on some biochar – a charcoal-like substance which improves the soil and has mulching properties.

Biochar is processed from woody offcuts in a special kiln and is then enriched with manure.

Linda Jansen from Tulbagh has been in the alien-clearing business for 24 years. Her business, Lyn’s Valley, now employs 40 people with the addition of biochar and woodchip production on-site.

Building Materials

If you think of a cob house – and give it a 21st-century spin, it will look something like EnviroCrete®, a building material made from a mixture of mineralised wood chips and cement.

Entrepreneur Shaiek Coe has secured the licence to produce and sell this product in the South African Development Community (SADC) region. As the raw material can be anything from recycled wood to forestry offcuts, there is a definite potential for alien biomass to go into the mix.

WWF logging alien vegetation

Saving The Rain Forests

The invasive red river gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) produces extremely high-quality hardwood, which makes it an ideal substitute for imported hardwoods.

Traditionally, buyers prefer imported materials, but Marc du Plessis from the Universal Timber & Machine Company in Salt River has been working hard to promote this species as a substitute, along with the sugar gum.

His company has dramatically reduced its import of hardwoods, and their gum decking materials are in high demand.

Garden Shop Goodies

In the Overberg, alien vegetation is what powers a family sawmill called Fynbos Logging between Bredasdorp and Elim.

Their staple product is fencing poles but, as the woman in the business, Elana le Grange, says, she is always keen to test other product lines like stable bedding for horses, kindling for home fires and garden mulch.

Green aviation

Waste to Wing, a joint project of Fetola, WWF and SkyNRG, is looking at the feasibility of developing a waste-based sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry in South Africa.

WWF’s Tjasa Bole-Rental explains that in the light of climate change, it is imperative for aviation to reduce its emissions, and much is being pinned on sustainable fuels.

In South Africa, a “low-hanging fruit” is the availability of alien biomass, and existing technological infrastructure to turn it into low carbon fuel.

Benches for Africa

Also on display was a school desk made out of a composite of eight species of alien trees (among them pines, eucalyptus and wattle).

It is a prototype developed by the Department of Environmental Affairs’ eco-furniture project to stimulate job creation and find a commercial use for alien woods.

The challenge now is to forge the public/private partnerships needed to take these products to the next commercial level – with one idea being that an alien-vegetation component should be built into all government procurements for furniture.

You too can give WWF wings

Another great way to support the wonderful work of WWF South Africa is to donate your SAA Voyager Miles. Donating your miles is easy:

  1. Log in to your Voyager account at flysaa.com
  2. Choose Voyager Shopping and select Donate Miles
  3. Under Target Account, select WWF and make your donation
  4. You can also do it via the new Voyager app

By donating your miles, you will help WWF South Africa work towards its conservation goals, and free up valuable organisational resources that can be ploughed back directly into environmental work.

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