Passion and determination are the hallmarks of family-owned SAgri Timber Products in eSwatini

We are very honoured to be partners of SAgri Timber Products and we are so excited to share their amazing story with you

The first time the intrepid Ngqwane family set eyes on a portable sawmill was when a courier company delivered it to their home in eSwatini on 11 January
2021. The machine’s arrival signalled the launch of SAgri Timber Products and a new chapter in their lives.


The sawmill team preparing the Lucas swingblade machine for production.

It takes foresight and courage to launch a new business to serve an industry in which you have no experience. In this interview, mobile sawmill co-entrepreneur Stanley Mhlengi-Ngqwane answers questions about their approach to business and learning experiences.

We are so passionate about life. We want to take charge of our lives, make things happen and leave a legacy for our children, 13-year-old Samu and
10-year-old Siya. Since 2014 my wife, Dr Gugu Pearl Mtshali-Ngqwane and I started several forestry-related businesses, including short-haul and harvesting.
Unfortunately, each time things did not work out.
However, we knew we could not give up. According to Barnes Williamson, there are three kinds of people:
• Those who make things happen.
• Those who watch things happen.
• Those who wonder what happened.

In January 2020, wanting to go back to short haulage, we tracked down an employee of a large sawmill that contracted our short-haul services in 2016. His advice was that we should own the work and stop being subcontractors. He suggested we buy a portable sawmill because there is always a market for sawn timber. It gave us food for thought. We used the COVID -19 lockdown period to research the portable sawmilling industry. We made plans, studied mobile sawmills, sourced equipment quotes, and identified and spoke with potential customers in the market for wet-off-saw hardwood timber. We had long phone conversations, email and WhatsApp discussions with suppliers before ordering the Lucas Mill Model 8-30 from Nukor.

Stanley Mhlengi-Ngqwane and his wife Dr Gugu Pearl Mtshali-Ngqwane are the owners of SAgri Timber Products. They are building the business for their the son Siya and daughter Samu.

Stanley Mhlengi-Ngqwane and his wife Dr Gugu Pearl Mtshali-Ngqwane are the owners of SAgri Timber Products. They are building the business for their the son Siya and daughter Samu.

We both come from humble, non-business operating families.

I have a BSc in Agricultural Education, National Diploma in Economics & Management and an MSc in Applied and Agricultural Economics.
Gugu is a Specialist in internal medicine and a Fellow of the Colleges of Physicians of South Africa. Her qualifications include a BSc in Biology and Chemistry, BSc Medicine and Surgery and an MMed Internal Medicine.
We are a very open, divergent thinking and an exploratory couple who always try to listen and take advice from people from different walks of life.

We were very naïve about this business, so we were strategic in recruiting only one person to operate the machine.
We delegated responsibility and gave him the freedom to recruit the persons he wants to work with. These guys know each other; they know who can do this or that and where they are. In return, we got the skilled team we needed for the different operations, including a skilled and experienced chainsaw operator, tractor and truck drivers, and another sawmill operator.

operations manager of Team SAgri

Sibusiso Magolide Maphanga (first from left) is the operations manager of Team SAgri. The experienced chainsaw operator Nathi
Dlamini is second from right

We have employed another team member to manage the entire operation. Sibusiso Maphanga is responsible for operational continuity, including maintenance and repairs. He needs to be proactive and find new sources of gum trees in the volumes and sizes we need before we finish the current cutting cycle. He has worked for several sawmills and is experienced in interpreting the buyer’s plank size specifications and developing the cutting lists according to the available logs. He oversees final sorting for dispatch and arranges the logistics for delivery to the customers.

My wife and I draw on our extensive and varied management, education, training experience, and networking expertise to complement and focus on team building. We let our employees apply their skills while we continually explore how to develop a solid and high performing team. Hence, we have branded ourselves Team SAgri. We outsource the maintenance of our chainsaws, plant and equipment and blade sharpening.

SAgri Timber Products primarily works with rose gum (Eucalyptus grandis). We produce planks cut to the sizes our markets request. The sawmill is highly portable, and we move our equipment to where we have secured rights to harvest the gum forests. Though we bought the Lucas Mill unseen on recommendation, we are discovering the versatility of this portable sawmill. It has an aluminium frame, making it light and easy to transport, carry to
the site, and assemble. Dismantling and reassembling takes a couple of minutes and can be done with ease.
It is a machine that is well adapted to our mobile business model. We have already been to four places around the country in the last five months.

Yes, definitely. As we get acquainted with the technical side of operating the Lucas Mill, we are increasingly pleased with its performance. It can be erected on a wide range of terrains, and, importantly, log handling is much easier than most sawmills. Most bandsaw machines struggle with a wide range of log diameters, especially large logs. The log must fit between the frame’s rails, and some large logs are too wide to fit. This is not the case with the Lucas Mill. It has a circular saw blade that swings into horizontal and vertical positions, making it quick and easy to cut slabs or planks from the side. We have recently purchased another mobile sawmill from Nukor, a Timbery M285 horizontal bandsaw. We find that the circular saw of the Lucas has a thicker kerf than bandsaw blades and produces more sawdust, but this is not a problem for us.

Because of the pandemic, we have not yet met anyone from Nukor face-to-face. However, it has not been an obstacle because they are
very responsive. All our dealings with them are virtual through phone conversations, WhatsApp, the internet and emails. We have not had significant
breakdowns. When we need assistance with parts, we order via email and arrange to collect them in Johannesburg with a very efficient courier from Eswatini. We have recently received Lucas Mill-specific replacement parts and a service kit.

Vusi Magagula (left) is the experienced sawmill operator responsible for training new operators.

Vusi Magagula (left) is the experienced sawmill operator responsible for training new operators.

It is a challenge that we are a new and young small business, about five months in operation. We don’t own the resource of our raw materials and depend on farmers and larger tree growers to allow us to harvest or process their timber. Our preferred timber is saligna which takes years to grow and is not easy to
find. Portable sawmill operators come and go because it is a low skilled job. A high turnover of operators causes production to slow down and negatively impacts the deliveries we promised the customer. We moved to an in-house training system to address this challenge and ensure that operators are available on short notice.

Vusi Magagula is a highly experienced sawmill operator team member who provides inhouse training, allocates shifts, supervises all the sawmill operators and services the sawmill.

In less than two weeks, new in-house trained operators can operate the saws efficiently and produce the specified plank sizes. The scarcity of gum leads us to where we harvest gum in residential or commercial estate properties. This exposes us to public liability, and we secured public liability cover from a local insurance company Logistics is a challenge when supplying gum planks. The planks must reach the customers wet-offsaw, which means we are working hard to build and maintain a reliable network of transporters.

We are operating the sawmill to develop a family business. The initiative is intended to diversify the streams of sources of income for the future. In his personal and business development books, author Martin Meadow advises that there is always something new to learn, no matter how experienced you are. Our philosophy is to grow our sawmilling business by building and maintaining good relationships with a network of complementary private and public services providers vital to running operations efficiently and productively. One of the important things we have learnt is that you don’t need to know and do everything to succeed in business. There is always someone with the skill, technical knowledge, and right attitude you can employ or associate with. We are taking control of our lives, and it is gaining momentum. We are confident that we will succeed.

Read the original article in WoodBiz Magazine – August Issue