Clearing the smoke, connecting with the community.

2015: Sappi Forests

A multinational corporation with its core business located in some of our country’s most remote rural areas gave us a phenomenal opportunity to explore just how powerful the combination of development communication and business strategy can be.

In South Africa, Sappi Forests supplies over 78% of the wood requirements of Sappi Southern Africa, from both its own and contractually committed commercial timber plantations. Some 495,000 hectares are covered with Sappi trees – this equates to more than 29 million tons of standing timber.

One of Sappi’s largest Forestry divisions is in KwaZulu-Natal. In the early part of 2014, Sappi Forests KZN was literally fighting fires: multiple acts of arson were wreaking havoc in its plantations, resulting in millions of Rands in losses. Despite sophisticated early fire detection and warning systems, and seasoned investigators who determined the cause of every fire, the company was not making headway in reducing this business risk.

Sappi Forests KZN had identified the improvement of relations between Sappi and its forestry community as a critical business success factor, believing it would:

  • Reduce the risks that theft and fire posed to property and standing timber,
  • Increase support for commercial forestry as the economic activity of choice in the plantation areas,
  • Entrench Sappi as the partner of choice for increased community-based forestry projects,
  • Improve support and service delivery from government agencies, and
  • Enable Sappi to better understand (and report on) the expectations of its communities.

Ultimately, the company wanted to develop a model for jointly identifying and implementing projects that would benefit the communities while furthering Sappi’s strategic objectives.

Our implementation

In April 2014, Sappi contracted DevCom to help find an answer. Our brief was to improve the company’s relationships and communication with its communities.

Naturally, our first step was research. We had one question to answer: “Why are community members setting fire to the forests?” Our goal was to provide management with the answers they needed to make informed decisions about how to minimise risk.


The area identified for our research covered more than 500km². It is extremely rural. Villagers live in mud huts with limited communal infrastructure like schools and halls (some had to walk 20km to reach the gathering places we had chosen for our research).

Between 60% and 80% of community members are unemployed and literacy levels are low. Sappi had limited direct engagement with grassroots community members.

The company also did not have open dialogue with its contractors’ workers or its own people regarding business risks.

Although Sappi had implemented fire education programmes in schools and focused on fire prevention, it had not explored the reasons for arson.

Significant as these challenges may sound, we had several key factors working in our favour. Chief among these were the action-orientated and integrated leadership style of the Sappi Forests KZN manager, the support from head office, and the opportunity we were given to integrate all layers of the organisation into the project.

Management was initially sceptical about the value of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) model, and the mixture of business and development communication. However, a series of workshops convinced them to embrace ABCD and community dialogue as our research methodology, and they helped to develop the research tools.

Our impact

  • Management realised that the social agenda is different from the issues-management agenda, on which they were focusing a lot of their stakeholder relations efforts.
  • Management allocated budget for the social mobilisation project, changed the way they spoke about communities, and use the ABCD principles to make decisions.
  • Sappi changed the way it trains its supervisors and managers and is developing a best practice toolkit for its contractors.
  • The company piloted a different approach to mitigate its fire risk. Using a youth-focused budget, Sappi appointed – on a contract basis – 18 bright young community members (called Abashintshi, meaning “The changers” in isiZulu) to establish a social mobilisation network.
  • Through the Abashintshi network, Sappi mobilised the internal assets in the communities to focus on youth and child volunteer programmes during school holidays, a life skills programme for the youth, and ABCD with the communities.

The Abashintshi Social Mobilisation Project

In January 2015, social mobilisation began with 18 Abashintshi activating their communities.

The Abashintshi created a credible communication channel for Sappi to convey messages to community members. Using picture stories and two-way dialogue tools, concepts like land claims could be explained. Sappi’s fire statistics and a follow-up audit of community perceptions served as measurement tools.

Our impact

The total number of fires declined from 297 (2014) to 173 (2015) to 33 (2016) – a reduction of 88.89% over the two years during which DevCom had implemented the Abashintshi Pilot Project.

The fact that 290 fewer hectares of forest were lost to fires in 2015 saved Sappi $1,023 (R14,931) per hectare not burned in 2015, adding up to a total potential saving of $296,941 (R4,332,378), excluding the costs of firefighting services.

Because of this success, Sappi extended the Abashintshi contract for a further 12 months and added nine more regions for implementation. A total of 36 Abashintshi were mobilised in 2016, with even better results.
Selecting Abashintshi as the name of the project was a powerful message in itself, and branding was built around this.

A logo of a helping hand branching out into communities was designed, supported by the tagline, “Inspired by Sappi”. The latter is a direct link to the Sappi brand (which has the tagline, “Inspired by life”). This brand positioning ensures that the project is not limited to Sappi involvement, but can form additional partnerships.

These are some of the numbers behind the Abashintshi programme since inception:

The Abashintshi project is ongoing and we have social impact results until 2019. Sappi has subsequently transferred this project in-house, with DevCom playing a measurement and evaluation role.