Humble roots

From humble roots, a mighty tree 12 years ago, Olga Malapane picked up a handsaw and entered the male-dominated timber industry.
Issue date 5 October 2007

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PIC: Olga Malapane (right) with her partner
Nancy Bopape and the men
who work with them.
Photos: Lindsey Sanderson

From humble roots, a mighty tree 12 years ago, Olga Malapane picked up a handsaw and entered the male-dominated timber industry. Today she runs her own tree-felling business in Tzaneen, and there’s nowhere to go but up. Lindsey Sanderson spoke to her. Olga Malapane was recently named first runner-up in the Forestry Policy and Management category of the Woman Working on Water, Forestry and Sanitation Awards – no mean feat for a woman who has, for the last 12 years, been self-employed in an industry dominated by men. Breadwinner at a young age Olga grew up in the remote village of Maphalle, near Pipa in the Bolobedu district in Limpopo. When she left school in the 1980s there was no chance she could continue her studies despite good exam results. had a widowed mother to support and went to work as an assistant in a spaza shop. It was a job with few prospects but that didn’t stop Olga planning a better future for herself and her small daughter. S he hit on the idea of felling timber and, in 1995, deciding she’d had enough of selling fruit and vegetables, went off in search of “real” work, leaving her daughter in her mother’s care. Olga began cutting and selling firewood to the villagers. Armed with a handsaw and an indomitable spirit she sought permission from a local farmer to clear brushwood off his land. Olga is not the sort of woman to be daunted by lack of experience, equipment and finance. Nor would she accept that being a woman disadvantaged her in what was then seen as an exclusively male occupation. Believing strongly that she needed to create her own opportunities if she wanted to make a success of her life, she saw an opportunity beyond cutting brushwood for the village. She set out to look for work in the vast timber plantations in the Tzaneen area. A long, hard road A t first it was difficult to persuade people that she was able to do the work, but she managed to convince some of the farmers in nearby Agatha to put her to the test. Blistered hands and aching muscles didn’t deter her from her goal, nor did living far from home. Olga often worked seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. She saved up enough money to buy a chainsaw but the work still wasn’t easy – as anyone who has used one of these heavy and dangerous implements will appreciate. After a few months Olga decided she needed an assistant. She employed one man, bought a second chainsaw and set about finding new contracts. he learnt how to cross-cut trees, fell them correctly and debark them. Shifting timber was a heavy job and she increased her staff to four men. Transporting the timber was another problem. Olga would sometimes negotiate a deal with the sawmills – she’d fell and stack the timber, and they’d transport it to the mill. Alternatively, she relied on hired transport. Olga also had no transport to and from work. Most timber plantations are in areas well off the main roads. Taking a taxi some of the way, she’d still have to walk many kilometres to the felling point. T imber felling is no easy job and serious accidents are a very real possibility. Badly injured on a tree-felling project, Olga was barely out of hospital before she was back at work, hobbling on crutches as she organised her work team. She stresses safety with her staff, ensuring the workers can handle chainsaws and take all the necessary precautions when felling trees. Once Olga had established her business and was getting repeat and new contracts, mainly by word of mouth, she realised she had to improve her business skills. She had to quote for the felling, estimating the load she could cut by the height, age and the girth of the trees. She had to negotiate prices with the mills, factoring in costs such as how many loads she could fell in a day, fuel, time, wages and her own salary. She also learnt to do her own bookkeeping and record keeping. After being ripped off several times by unscrupulous timber dealers, Olga stood up for herself and insisted on being paid cash up front. A tall tree Now, 12 years after setting off with her handsaw, Olga has established herself as a respected businesswoman. Her reputation for efficiency, hard work and honesty means her skills are in much demand on the plantations around Magoebaskloof. Olga has bought her own bakkie, employs nine men and supports her mother and daughter as well as other family members. Her daughter has recently completed a diploma course in human resources. Olga has recently joined forces with Nancy Bopape, creating a vibrant and enthusiastic partnership. She plans to expand her business and buy her own lorry. She’s also planning on establishing an indigenous tree nursery and employing women. Outside the timber business, she has inspired other women by proving that, with enough will and determination, nothing will hold them back. Contact Olga Malapane on 083 955 5024. |fw