Eco Furniture Factories

Event date: 
2013-01-23 08:46
Introduction and background
Key Components
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Introduction and background 


The Natural Resource Management Programme is seeking to establish 18 Value-added Industry Eco-Furniture Factories across the country. 

  • Each factory will make products that help to address the needs of Government, with an initial focus on school desks, benches and other furniture. 
  • The products will be made from wood from invasive alien plants cleared as part of the WfW programme. 
  • Approximately 160 jobs will be created per factory, when fully operational, within the framework of the Expanded Public Works Programme, in this process.   
  • These jobs will focus on the marginalized, in terms of race, gender, disability and age. 
  • Based on similar work in WfW, it is estimated that these school desks can be made at a significantly lower cost than what is currently being paid for desks, and that they will last several times as long. 
  • The anticipated cost-per-person day in making the desks, will also be significantly lower than the norm for work in the WfW (approximately R228 per person day of work in year 3).
  • The intention is to sell these products to the Department of Education, and other relevant Departments, to meet their needs.  The funding arrangements will need to be addressed with the National Treasury. 
  • There are suitable stands of accessible and utilizable invasive alien plant biomass available in the all areas to be harvested in the making of products. 
  • Wild fires may be a risk to the biomass to be used in certain areas and care will need to be taken to mitigate this risk.  Transport costs are a second consideration for the long-term viability of the factories.  However, even in the unlikely event of wood being transported from outside the areas, the costs of the desks would still be highly competitive.
  • The buildings to house the factories still need to be identified.  The Department of Public Works has been asked to assist in this regard, as will the local authorities and other partners.
  • The factories will be set up following all health, safety and environmental guidelines, and will be set up during the 2012/13 and 2013/14 financial years. 
  • Reporting will be done by WfW through the EPWP.

The following additional key points are important when dealing with potential partners in the project:

  • Approximately R383 million shall be invested in the project over a 3-year period.
  • Clear guidelines for the site specifications have been developed (Appendix 2).

The Working for Water programme has piloted value-added industry options, in partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Invasive Alien Species Programme (KZN IASP).  These initiatives have shown the viability of the approach of utilizing invasive alien biomass to create jobs, in making value-added products relevant to Government’s needs, and reducing the cost of clearing the invasive plants.

The VAI factory in KZN came about after exposure to the exploitation of the poor by some in the funeral industry, at the time of bereavement.  The concept of making “Eco-coffins” from the invasive wood won the World Bank’s Development Marketplace prize for innovation, and the approximately R1 million grant was used to buy the necessary machinery, some of which is shown in the photos on the cover page.  The Eco-coffins project provides work for 89 people trained in woodwork and other relevant skills, and the cost of a person day was R160 in the last financial year – very low indeed for the EPWP.  The basic Eco-coffin can be made for as little as R220, and sold (with a handling charge for the faith-based organizations through whom the poor families are able to access them) for R300.  This is a small fraction of what people are being asked to pay for basic coffins – and made all the more remarkable by the fact that this price includes the cost of harvesting.

The product that has become the short-term major focus has been the manufacture of school desks.  High-quality, durable, solid-wooden desks are being manufactured for less than half of what schools are currently paying for chipboard desks that last a fraction of the time of the Eco-desks.  These costs of the Eco-desks include the full costs of harvesting the wood.  It is envisaged that production units can be set up across the country, to meet the backlog and future needs for school desks, including the repair of desks.  The relevance of setting up the desks across the country is to reduce the transportation costs, even allowing for the fact that the desks are produced in kit form, and then assembled at the receiving schools. 



To establish viable furniture-production factories, producing products needed by Government, using wood from invasive alien plants, creating jobs for approximately one hundred workers, working at competitive EPWP rates, and producing high-quality products at costs lower than if Government buys them on the open market.


Key Components


The following key components of the successful establishment of VAI factories have been identified:

a. Management:

WfW has been transferred from DWA to DEA, and will run the Eco-Furniture Factories through an Implementing Agency (likely to be the South African National Energy Development Institute – SANEDI). The project will be run on a performance basis, within an EPWP framework, and every individual will have performance-related tasks, and commensurate rewards.

b. Employment:

The project aims to employ a total number of 160 people from the local communities in each of the factories, phased in over two years, with 65 in the initial batch (2,790 Full-Time equivalents).

The general WfW targets for employment are 99% black (generic), 60% women, 45% youth (18-35 years of age) and 2% disabled. Higher proportions may be sought for youth (70-80%) and disabled (10-20%) workers, given Government’s priorities. VAI work lends itself to higher proportions of disabled workers, in comparison to the rest of the Natural Resource Management Programmes (WfW, Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, etc). The composition of the beneficiaries at an Eco-Furniture Factory is anticipated to be as follows:

54 Bush Mill (3x8) + Lucas Mill (3x10)

26 Wet Mill (2x13) 57

Dry Mill (3x19) 16

Assembly (2x8) 2

Drivers (2x1)

155 Total Beneficiaries

5 Management (i.e. new jobs)

160 Total jobs

c. Skills development requirements:

Extensive training will be provided for the core of the workers, and strict health and safety measures will be put in place. The training will take the form of formal furniture making at an appropriate training centre in each area. Further training will be done by experts currently running the KZN furniture factory, and through SETA-approved capacities. Training is obviously important, and the technical training will relate to specific skills needed, such as chainsaw training, furniture manufacture, machine maintenance, tree felling and other related training, including Health & Safety and First Aid. Broader life training will follow that done generally within WfW, including with respect to financial management, HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, sexual and reproductive health, gender awareness and similar foci.

d. Key competencies:

All necessary key competencies will be identified and secured, including the Programme Manager in the Implementing Agency’s office, the Factory Manager, and capacity for harvesting (where exited WfW capacity may be used), planking (a highly specialized skill, using a specialist saw to cut logs into planks) and furniture manufacturing.




The following components of production will need to be addressed. 

  • Availability of woody material/ bio-mass for furniture manufacturing: Suitable invasive alien plants in all accessible sites within each area will be harvested for the manufacture of the furniture.  Partnerships with private landowners need to be established in order to clear their land and utilize the timber thereon.  It is envisaged that the harvesting of biomass for energy, may allow for a “cherry-picking” of suitable timber for the Eco-furniture Factories (as well as for extending the production to both building materials and composite items, including ceilings).
  • Facilities:  The furniture factory will be established in suitable buildings in each of the four areas.  Around 900m² is needed for each (of which 600m² should be fully enclosed).  It has not yet been established whether there is a suitable factory space in all of the areas.  Discussions are taking place with the Department of Public Works, local authorities and other partners.  If there are not suitable facilities in any of the preferred areas, alternative areas will be sought.  There is a need to impress upon local authorities the benefit of having an Eco-furniture Factory in their area and the investment made from NRMP and employment opportunities. 
  • Long-term production: The factory in KZN has found that it is possible to run three shifts of teams on a 24-hour basis, thereby utilizing the space and equipment to create more jobs, more products, and a greater utilization of invasive alien plant biomass.  This will not be the initial approach used in the factories, but will be part of the longer-term vision to optimise the investments of the Government.  All Labour requirements will be met, should this happen.


There are five components to the production of furniture and other products.  Each team is a separate business unit, and is paid upon meeting the production output for that team.

Harvesting operations: 
Three teams of people will do the harvesting. These teams will move from property to property felling and canting timber that can be used in the mill. The cants shall then be delivered to the mill. The regional NRM clearing operations shall be informed about the site. The site shall then be handed over to the region to maintain.  

Wet Milling operations:
One team shall plank the cants, stack and manage the kilns. 
Dry Milling operations:

Dry timber shall be moved from the wet mill to the dry mill and the wood will be processed. The planks and laminated sheets shall be ready for product development. The planks and laminated sheets shall be utilised to create the products required.

Finishing Mill operations

In the finishing mill, the planks and laminated sheets are converted into the required products.

Delivery operations

Finished products need to be removed from the mill and delivered to the end user as soon as possible. The constant delivery of the products from the mill will ensure that space does not become a problem in the mill.

Furniture Product needs

Furniture will be manufactured to address Government’s needs.  The initial focus will be on the needs of the Department of Education, and will extend to other Departments at their invitation. 

a. School desks are already being made in KZN and this will be done in all factories.

b. Benches for hospitals, clinics, pension payout points, police stations and various other Governmental waiting rooms, will be supplied through the factories, again at a fraction of the cost that they currently cost. Repair work can also be done.

c. The potential list of products that can be made is long (tables, chairs, beds, book cases, frames, and so on), as the skills of the workers increase and the capacity of the factory grows. This may be extended to building and composite materials.

d. It is not the intention of the Eco-furniture Factories to sell directly to the private sector, except where this can help with the poorest of the poor. Clear rules will be developed in this regard. The Eco-coffins are already an exception to this rule, where the project sells via faith-based organizations to the poor, to reduce the cost of bereavement. That is not expected to change.

Manufacturing designs: The management team will be responsible for the collation of specifications from the different role-players and extrapolating these into technical drawings ready for manufacture.  Prototypes will have to be made to check design faults and be signed off by the customer before full-scale manufacturing may start.


School desks and benches will be produced for various Government Departments at National, Provincial and Local Government levels.

Other furniture needs will be made, as identified by various Government Departments, and when the teams’ skill levels allow for them to be made.  These include desks, bookshelves, tables, chairs, stands, lamps and other products.  The fact that they can be branded as being made from invasive alien wood that would otherwise be causing significant problems, and made by EPWP labour as part of Government’s commitment to work opportunities for the poor, is seen as an important selling point – in addition to their invariably being less expensive than Government procures on the open market (and none of the health risks of Supawood).

a. Spin-off (VAI) products are possible, some of which could be done as VAI SMME opportunities for others in the communities in the areas. These include;

i. Accessories – door and draw handles, etc.

ii. Walking sticks.

iii. Beading for the walking sticks.

iv. Carvings and carving blocks.

v. Charcoal. vi. Chippings.

Quality control is of vital concern, and workers will only be paid for products that pass quality control and acceptance by the people and institutions for whom they are being made.  Delivery must also be on time, if there is to be acceptance of the products being made through the factories. 

The total production of school desk equivalents per year:

Year 1 - 97,000 school-desk equivalents

Year 2 - 240,000 school-desk equivalents

Year 3 - 290,000 school-desk equivalents

Proposed cost of each school desk equivalent per year:

Year 1 – R420 per school-desk equivalents

Year 2 – R450 per school-desk equivalents

Year 3 – R485 per school-desk equivalents


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