Commercial success from ‘instant’ trees

The journey of Themba Trees Tree Farm near Grabouw started in her backyard, says Caroline de Villiers, the Western Cape department of agriculture’s Top Commercial Female Entrepreneur for 2016. Today, the 12ha wholesale tree farm boasts more than 50 000 indigenous and ornamental trees.

Commercial-success-from-‘instant’-trees

A passion for trees and job creation motivated the establishment of the wholesale tree farm, Themba Trees, nine years ago.
“I grew up on a farm and have always loved trees and forests,” says owner, Caroline de Villiers.

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The tree farm caught the eye of the Western Cape department of agriculture, and it presented her with the Western Cape Top Entrepreneur Smallholder award in 2010, and the Western Cape Top Commercial Female Entrepreneur award for 2016.

After living abroad for five years, Caroline returned to South Africa and settled with her family on her stepfather’s apple farm, Kromvlei, near Grabouw. Here, her passion for trees was reignited and she started a small tree nursery on the farm.

While living overseas, Caroline completed an MSc in International Development, with focus on the development of African economies. Starting a nursery seemed the perfect business opportunity to combine her BSc Forestry and MSc degrees, and follow her passion for protecting the environment and empowering others by creating jobs.

Caroline de Villiers and nursery manager, Witness Machana. Caroline currently employs
20 workers, who are responsible for propagating, weeding, potting, staking and pruning the trees.

“At that stage, the tree nursery industry was also booming. Everybody was selling trees and there was a great demand for ‘instant’ trees from landscapers and property developers.”

As the business grew, Caroline identified a 2ha piece of land on Thandi Farm, which had good visibility from the N2. It was here, in 2007, where she started growing her business. But, although Thandi offered an opportunity for expansion, Caroline did not have security of tenure, so thought it too risky to spend money on any infrastructure. She had to look for a new location.

Six years later, Caroline moved the business to Kromvlei, where a plantation of blue gum trees (Eucalyptus saligna) had been cleared. The cleared area was perfect for cultivating trees and right on her doorstep.

Today, Themba Trees cultivates a variety of indigenous and exotic trees for government departments, municipalities, property developers, landscapers, farmers and retail nurseries.

The business has 24 employees who are responsible for propagating, potting, staking and pruning the trees, as well as irrigation, fertilisation, weeding and pest control.

When they moved to the current premises, Caroline bought a truck, which enables the business to undertake deliveries across the country.

When asked about the business’s competitive edge, she replies: “It’s our quality as well as the service we offer. We’re also located close to Cape Town and Hermanus markets.

“We’re one of a few nurseries producing mature fruit trees. It can take between three to six years for a seedling to grow to a mature tree. We offer ‘instant trees’ of up to 6m in height in 10l, 20l, 60l, 125l, 200l, 400l and 1 000l bags.”

The farm also grows trees that are used to rehabilitate disturbed terrain, and as pioneer species for areas where alien species are being cleared. These are fast-growing and endemic to the specific areas.

Many of the trees are exposed to a fair amount of wind on the farm; this makes them hardy and helps them to adapt to their new environment when they leave the nursery.

Sustainability
Embracing environmentally sustainable business practices is important to Caroline.

“We make our own potting soil from the resources we get from a neighbouring sawmill and chicken farm. All the cuttings and green materials produced by the farm are composted and used on the farm itself,” she explains. The business is also in the process of establishing its own worm farm to produce worm tea to use as fertiliser.

Caroline says that as much as possible is done to limit the business’s environmental impact and the use of pesticides is therefore kept to a minimum. Herbs are planted all over the farm to act as ‘natural’ pesticides.

She has also started to plant keurboom (Virgilia oroboidies) trees on the farm. V. oroboides is a leguminous, nitrogen-fixing pioneer species, explains Caroline. It is the ideal tree to plant after clearing alien vegetation, as it quickly establishes a habitat that suppresses the regrowth of alien vegetation.

The tree adds nitrogen to the soil, improving its quality, and its roots stabilise the soil to prevent erosion, as well as aerating and adding structure to compacted soils.

Social responsibility
Caroline says that at the heart of Themba Trees lies a desire to give hope to employees through job creation. “Themba means ‘hope’ in isiXhosa. I believe that you can give someone hope if they have a job, which they can look forward to.”
She also believes in empowering her workers through training in appropriate tree care and maintenance practices.

Caroline speaks highly of her right-hand man and manager, Witness Machana, who started as a general worker at Themba Trees. He was willing to learn on the job, and after just two years, had taught himself the skills to manage the nursery, she says.

Themba Trees sources the stakes used as tree supports from the area. Local entrepreneur, Victoria Mthambeka, harvests invasive alien pine trees to make the stakes and droppers.

“Not only is Victoria helping the environment, but she is proactively building a sustainable business for herself, while creating employment for a few local residents, including her husband,” Caroline explains.

Securing raw timber legally and marketing her products proved a difficult task for Victoria, so Caroline helped her to secure access to Paul Cluver Wines’ property to harvest timber. Themba Trees has also marketed her services and assisted with delivering her products.

Awards a boost for the nursery
Running a nursery is highly labour-intensive and demands one’s attention 24 hours a day, according to Caroline. But it is this hard work, as well as sustainable farming practices, job creation and treating her employees with dignity and respect that have secured Caroline her Western Cape department of agriculture awards.

“These are achievements I’m very proud of, and it’s a huge confidence booster for me and the farm,” she says.

Phone Caroline de Villiers on 076 403 7456, or visit  thembatrees.co.za.

This article was originally published in the 26 August 2016 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.