Change the world


Award-winning research by a young forester from Mpumalanga into harvesting biomass manually after pine trees have been felled has been presented at an international conference.


Thandekile Ncongwane, 28, won a Celebrating Excellence award from Nelson Mandela University in November for her Master’s treatise on this subject, which she aced with a score of 93%.

Ncongwane studied forestry at the George Campus of Nelson Mandela University, and graduated with her Master’s degree in technology in April this year.

Originally from Schoemansdal in Mpumalanga, she now works at York Timbers in Sabie, in the same province.

Her research investigated the recovery and  productivity of pinus patula biomass after being partially harvested. It looked at the quantity of collectable tree material left behind.

“After the primary logs are harvested, there is biomass left behind. This consists of logs that may have been cut to the wrong size, or are broken, as well as other organic material such as branches, needles, cones and twigs,” she explains.

Some of this is left in the field while a certain amount can be repurposed as a source of energy.

“We assessed a manual collection method of forest residues, such as leftover logs, branches, twigs and needles, cones, and time-studied the people who were collecting the leftover logs and taking them to the roadside.”

Ncongwane then analysed productivity and cost: “Knowing the time [productivity] and quantity of the forest residues, we derived the costs of the operation using the general labour rate used in South Africa.”

She sees this manual method as a way to create job opportunities in an industry where most operations are mechanised.

Forestry lecturer Dr Muedanyi Ramantswana, who co-supervised the MTech, said Ncongwane’s research was unique in its focus on manual methods of collection.

“In South Africa we have two major issues: an energy crisis and unemployment,” he said.

Manual methods therefore were important as they created opportunities for local rural communities to collect a sustainable supply of biomass for energy production.

“This research contributes to the knowledge gap which exists in sourcing and supplying wood-based energy sources,” said Dr Ramanstwana.

“Even though the contribution of biomass to the overall energy mix is still minimal, research like Thandekile's work enables forestry companies to make informed decisions in terms of biomass availability, recovery and production when using manual methods.”

As an alternative energy source, biomass is becoming a highly significant resource for many different energy-related applications worldwide. Manual biomass recovery also minimises fossil inputs.

Ncongwane wants to become a bioenergy specialist, creating opportunities in disadvantaged areas. At the same time, she would like to give back to the community in terms of knowledge, experience and support.

Her biomass project was the first study in South Africa in the forestry field focusing on potential alternative energy sources in forestry.

It’s far from her original career dream of becoming a physiotherapist. However, after matric, in 2015 she secured a learnership at Safcol in forestry and realised “this is something that I can do”.

“I like being outdoors and in nature, and I wanted to be part of it all.”

Her WhatsApp profile picture is a green shoot growing, “because I want to grow, I believe in growth”.

Dr Ramantswana said the high mark was “a great achievement”.

“It is not common to receive such a mark in this field. Her work was examined by two leading international examiners in the area, and has been presented at a local and international conference.”

Surrounded by commercial forests, George Campus is an ideal setting to integrate academic training and practical experience, giving its forestry students broad exposure to the industry.

Nelson Mandela University and the South African forestry industry both emphasise the management of renewable resources, to ensure sustainability on an economic, social and environmental basis.

The forest and wood processing industries form an important part of the South African economy, and contribute significantly to the GDP of the manufacturing industry.

Forestry today is a vibrant and dynamic industry and one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the South African economy.

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160