In 1995, the national Working for Water programme began removing invasive and water-guzzling alien trees, ultimately providing 25-million once-off jobs over the years.
The opportunity offered by the alien wood became a programme to create coffins, to address the plight of the poor at the time of bereavement.
“We have been selling the basic, rope-handled eco-coffins for R300. They are extremely well made,” says Working for Water’s national programme leader, Guy Preston. “We are exploring making caskets at a far more affordable price because there is a great status associated with caskets.”
From the original eco-coffin concept, the Eco-Furniture Programme evolved to utilise alien woods for furniture that the government needs.
“Our big focus is on school desks,” says Preston. Made from red river gum, poplar and other alien woods, the desks are high-quality and durable.
The Eco-Furniture Programme has already delivered 24 000 desks to 254 schools in the Eastern Cape, providing solid seating for up to 48 000 school children.
“We want to put 300 000 kids behind desks next year. We’re anticipating creating 3 000 long-term jobs from this,” Preston says. So far the programme has created more than 600 full-time jobs for previously unemployed people, working in six factories across the country.
It draws together various government stakeholders, including the departments of environmental affairs and basic education. Its implementing agent within South African National Parks (SANParks) is the biodiversity social programme (BSP).
It also collaborates with the Jobs Fund, the Expanded Public Works Programme and the private sector. All work undertaken in the programme is done through contracting SMMEs.
“The Eco-Furniture Programme has developed an industry around the clearing of invasive biomass, converting the trees into usable material and manufacturing an assortment of furniture products,” says national coordinator Grant Trebble.
“The income derived from the sale of these products should generate a surplus within the next two years, which will be allocated to clearing more invasive plants, further protecting our water resources and biodiversity.”
Other types of furniture the programme makes range from sturdy benches for pensioners’ queues to chests, tables and jungle gyms.
The programme started in Cedara, in KwaZulu-Natal, but it’s now a national programme with a presence in the Southern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. The plan is to expand into the remaining provinces over the next couple of years.