The Free State has become a hub of innovation in timber use, with a state-owned initiative exploring better ways of using South Africa’s vast invasive biomass resources.
At the heart of the operation is the clearing of invasive Poplar and other species within a 80km radius of a sawmill in Ficksburg which is producing boards for school desk production by a host of factories in the country.
About 270 000 school desks are being made for public schools in the country.
While strikingly beautiful school desks can be produced from the timber, considering its similarity to pine, it is not grown for these purposes and wastage is therefore extremely high. This has seen the project pursue other uses for these waste streams. At present, it is using as much as 90% of its waste.
Wood Southern Africa & Timber Times visited the operation last month, when two extruder lines were being operated as part of a six month prototype that will investigate producing cattle feed from Poplar. This has never been attempted in the country before, but prospects look extremely encouraging.
Also on the agenda is the production of wood-cement fibre materials that will compete in the alternative building systems market.
Here, the project is collaborating with a large international producer of these products, as well as the University of Stellenbosch which has been tasked with the finding the most suitable timber species that will bind with the cement.
The first stage of the project will see the installation of equipment needed for the dosing and mixing of materials and the moulds, before embarking on the next phase which will comprise the installation of a large computer-numerical control (CNC) machining line that will be used to cut the various components.
It is believed that there is a ready market for about 4 000 units a year in the early commercialisation stages of the project. Product will be supplied to both public and private sector builds.
Playing strongly in favour of the business plan is the heightened interest in sustainable building practices in the country, which is challenging the conventional brick and mortar method of building in the country.
These machines complement other related initiatives, including the production of hydro mulch, a by-product of the company’s farmers’ mulch that is produced from the chipping of its waste stream.
The project has developed a close affiliation with this market over the years, considering that it also supplies farmers with shavings for the poultry market.
However, the biggest initiative already under way at present is the diversification into the production of wood wool products. Already, it is a significant supplier to the Department of Water Affairs, which is using them for erosion control, including for the preparation of a large and highly-anticipated water augmentation project in the Eastern Cape.
Complementing this range of products are the wooden pegs used to be down the erosion control blackets.