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Tuesday, 27 April 2021
Introducing South Africa’s Women in Forestry initiative

Khosi Mavimbela – Khosi Mavimbela, Executive Director of Women in Forestry Chairwoman and Forestry SectorCharter Council (FSCC)   (© Khosi Mavimbela)© Khosi Mavimbela

Interview with Women in Forestry Chairwoman and South Forestry Sector Charter Council (FSCC) Executive Director Khosi Mavimbela

As you are aware the Forest Stewardship Council™ certification standards align very closely to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which are a collection of 17 interlinked goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all".
The FSC contributes to 14 Goals and 40 targets, including Goal 5 – Gender Equality. There are several indicators the FSC monitors within its certified forest units, including equal pay, training opportunities, guaranteed maternity leave, paternity leave, participation in decision-making, eliminating sexual harassment which contribute to Goal 5 – Gender Equality. FSC requires certified organisations to bridge the gaps where these exist.

We would like to share with you South Africa’s Women in Forestry initiative which highlights the important role women play in the forestry sector.

What is the ‘Women in Forestry’ initiative and why is it so necessary?

Khosi: South Africa’s forestry sector, in fact, forestry globally, is often falsely perceived as a “male-only” profession that is closed to women. This is a myth we are determined to dispel! Yes, there are still far more men than women in our industry, but long-gone are the days where only men with big beards need apply for forestry roles. We now see women represented in roles across the sector and along its value chain, from machine operators involved in harvesting and silviculture, to lead researchers, CEOs and CFOs – there are no ‘gender glass-ceilings’, so to speak. As a Sector, it is time we address these negative gender stereotypes as they are harming our industry, putting women off applying for roles or even considering the sector as a potential career path. As an industry, we have big plans for forestry over the next decade, these can only be achieved if we attract the brightest minds and the most dedicated workforce and to do this, we need to appeal to both male and female candidates.

The Women In Forestry initiative was sparked by a campaign run by Forestry South Africa (FSA) on their website, as part of the Sector’s Women’s Month celebrations in 2019. The campaign provided a platform for women working within the industry to have a voice, to showcase the roles and responsibilities they have within the sector and to act as role models for other women both in the industry and looking to join it. In 2020, FSA followed it up by challenging women to send in video profiles where they not only discussed their roles but also their greatest accomplishments and aspirations. The campaign created a great deal of interest, illustrating the need for a platform to promote the incredible women we have working within the Sector. At the same time, I was fielding questions from a formidable woman in the Sector, Mama Busi Mnguni, a representative on FSA’s Small-Grower Group. She had also noted the need for a platform to promote the women in the Sector, specifically those in a rural setting. So, the idea was born – we needed to provide a platform that would promote the women in forestry.

How did the Webinar come to fruition?

Khosi: The Webinar came to fruition through an act of spontaneity between FSCC and FSA and our shared desire to provide a platform to celebrate the women in forestry. Pre-COVID-19, I am not sure we would have even attempted it, however the restrictions that have been put in place through the pandemic have opened our eyes to the potential of ‘virtual meetings’. Still, without the support of all the organised Forestry Associations, SAFCA (South African Forest Contractors Association), SAWPA (South African Wood Preservers Association), SSA (Sawmilling South Africa), PAMSA (Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa, SAUPA (South African Utility Pole Association, the FP&M Seta (Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education & Training Authority) and of course the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), the Webinar would never have got off the ground. Their willingness to volunteer the time and expertise of their staff and members to the Women In Forestry Planning and Organising Committee (POC) ensured the Webinar dream became a reality.

While South Africa's Women’s Month (August 2020) provided an obvious platform the women in our industry so desperately needed, the challenge was timing. I won’t lie, at times it felt like a seemingly impossible task, and yet the unbridled passion, dedication, organisational skills and teamwork exhibited by the women in the committee arranging it really did create miracles. I must say I can’t stop thanking them, they have become my heroines and my daily source of inspiration. In three short weeks, we went from a fanciful idea to a 6-hour Webinar, with Deputy Minister of DEFF, Ms Makhotso Sotyu giving the opening address and corporates paying for promotional videos to be played between themes, that drew a crowd of over 250 individual IP addresses. I say IP address because we know at many of the venues that logged in multiple women were watching and participating, so the true figure of those involved is likely to be much higher. While it is impossible to mention all those who put their own ‘to-do’ list to one side to help with the organisation of this monumental task, I feel we should acknowledge NCT Forestry’s role. NCT offered up their IT department to host the webinar, without this, the project would never have got off the ground.

The Webinar itself was a huge success, attracting a range of highly influential speakers from across the sector and its value chain. The Deputy Minister of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Ms Makhotso Sotyu opened the webinar, talking about her commitment to the Sector. She was followed by women in the industry who had broken through the glass ceiling and were now commanding top-tier roles. We listened to women from outside the sector who were helping to shape it through research, training, innovation and education. We heard from women who were new to the industry, but whose passion and commitment to the sector suggests they will be the future leaders of forestry. There were forestry role models, whose backstory and enthusiasm is already inspiring others like them to look to the sector as a career avenue. We heard from the next generation of potential foresters, the forestry students who shared their aspirations and challenges, as well as, from the forestry icons who had laid the path for these students to follow, when the industry was much different and less welcoming to women.
The Webinar highlighted just how diverse the women in our sector are, in terms of roles they commanded and their backgrounds, yet their passion for forestry brought them together, as did a shared dream: for women in forestry to find their voice.

On the 28 August 2020 this dream was realised, the women in our sector not only found their voice but they raised it in unison thanks to the Women in Forestry Webinar.

How far was the impact felt? Is it just women in the forestry sector who are benefitting?

Khosi: No, absolutely not, the benefits can be seen on several levels.
Looking specifically at the Webinar, through it we were able to raise R70 000 in sponsorship. We would like to acknowledge the important and generous contributions from, Fibre, Processing & Manufacturing Seta, Forestry South Africa, Paper Manufacturing Association of South Africa, Sappi, Sawmilling South Africa, South Africa Utility Pole Association and South African Wood Preservers Association. This money will be donated to five schools across the five South African forestry-provinces: Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. The Department of Education helped identify the schools that most needed our help, and we are currently in communication with them with regards to how best this money can be utilised.
In terms of women finally getting a platform for their voice to be heard and counted, I believe that everyone in the sector benefits, irrespective of gender. Melinda Gates states in her book, The Moment of Lift, that gender equity is one of the biggest drivers for community upliftment, the forestry sector can be considered a community. By breaking down the barriers, even if they are only perceived barriers, we are making the sector more accessible and diverse. This brings new skill sets to the table, new ways, and ideas. It is not that women are better than men or should replace them, we simply want them to be considered equal partners, with an equal role in shaping the sector as it moves forward.

So, is there a role for men?

Khosi: Yes, of course in fact, it is a necessity. We need to have the buy-in from the men in our sector, and indeed beyond it, to make this initiative work. We need the support of our male colleagues, for them to become ‘champions of gender equality’ ensuring our voice is heard in circles where it does not yet reach and that the message of gender equality is supported. It goes beyond forestry, we need our husbands, brothers, fathers, sons and the men in our communities to do the same, championing gender equality at home is just as important as in the workplace.
With the Women In Forestry Webinar, we were fortunate to find three such champions: Sikhumbuzo Nxumalo from the Forest Sector Charter Council and Norman Dlamini and Nathi Ndlela from Forestry South Africa. Three men who were involved with the Webinar from day one and become an essential part of the team moving this initiative forward. In the same way women bring something extra to a male-dominated workplace, these three men brought added-value to a committee of women and the initiative benefited immensely from their expertise, support and willingness to listen, more importantly, the diversity and balance they offered by voicing a male perspective. The combination of our passion and newfound voice and their support as champions makes this initiative an unstoppable force.

Where to next?

Khosi: While the success of the Webinar, especially when considering the limited timeframe, provided a massive high, but we knew we could not sit back and bask in its success, that we had to make the most of the momentum it generated.
We are in the process of registering as an NPO and implementing numerous awareness, education, upliftment and empowerment initiatives. We have dedicated task teams assigned to different aspects of this, including naming our initiative, sadly “Women In Forestry” was already officially taken, and are currently in the process of developing an agenda that provides the ‘road-map’ for the future. It feels like we are standing on the edge of something much bigger than any of us can imagine, a greater horizon for forestry.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Khosi: The beauty of South Africa’s forestry sector is its diverse nature; this is mirrored in our committee. We have CEOs and business owners, communication experts and financial officers, logistics officers and politicians, educators, and students, all focusing their diverse and extensive skillsets on a single objective – gender equality in the Forestry Sector. It is a very exciting project to be involved in and I am honoured to be chairing it. We will continue to ensure our voice is heard, our faces are seen and our sector can shake off the male-only stereotype for once and for all.


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