SAFCOL CIO Masebolelo Gaeganelwe on revolutionising forest management

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Masebolelo says technology can be empowering in modern forestry.

South African Forestry Company Limited (SAFCOL) CIO Masebolelo Gaeganelwe says technology can empower the forestry industry to navigate the complexities of conservation, sustainable forest management, and ecological balance in the modern world, and shares how she sees her role. 

Masebolelo’s journey began with qualifications in mathematics and computer science until she graduated with a master’s in informatics. She then went into academia, sharing her expertise as a computer science lecturer for two years. 

She transitioned to the role of a systems engineer at Unisys: this initial exposure laid the groundwork for her career, and she ascended the ranks by managing IT operations in an outsourcing arrangement with Bytes Technology Group. This stage of her journey unfolded at influential entities like Multichoice and PPS, enriching her understanding of practical implementation of IT solutions.

Following that, she worked as a consultant at Sasol before moving into the retail sector at Edcon, which she says was her steepest learning curve, “I found my experience working in retail at Edcon to be incredibly fascinating. The fast-paced nature of the job kept me on my toes, and I enjoyed being able to support business in whatever way they needed. 

“One particular memory stands out to me when I first joined the company. There was a discussion about the ICT strategy, and it became clear that there wasn't necessarily a separate strategy. Instead, the focus was on aligning with the stores’ strategy and providing them with whatever support they required. 

“The ever-changing nature of the retail industry meant that plans could shift at any moment. For example, one day we might be moving in one direction, only to have the stores decide to change course and introduce e-commerce. The priority was always to support the stores’ needs.”

She then joined professional services firm, SkX Protiviti , leading the ICT function  before finally landing at SAFCOL, 

Challenges and a vision for the future

SAFCOL’s operations centre around managing forests in Mpumalanga and producing logs for diverse customers, including industry giants. As the CIO, Masebolelo steers the ICT function, reporting directly to the CEO and overseeing four key domains: ICT operations, applications, security, and infrastructure.

In her capacity as CIO, Masebolelo navigates both strengths and challenges. One of her foremost strengths lies in her ability to drive change. Faced with outdated technology infrastructure, she is spearheading a transformational modernisation process. 

“Much of our operations still rely heavily on manual processes. However, we are now in the process of introducing mechanisation and integration of systems to improve efficiency. There are several technologies that we are exploring, including cloud computing, using digital devices, connectivity  and remote processing technologies to enhance our forest management practices. These advancements will usher in a new era of efficient and sustainable forest planning and management processes.”

Her ambitions are not only about upgrading systems but also transforming SAFCOL’s very DNA to align with the fast-paced digital age.

However, Masebolelo faces formidable challenges in her pursuit of modernisation. She says, “When I joined SAFCOL, I envisioned leveraging digital technologies, which we refer to as Forestry 4.0., to promote intelligence in forestry activities. Our goal is to create a connected forest, where all aspects of our operations are seamlessly integrated. This entails end-to-end digitalisation of all components of the forest supply chain to become digitally connected and operationally integrated with employees, suppliers, customers, partners, smart devices and machines into a digital ecosystem, to enable real-time data sharing.”

She shares that the main challenge they face is establishing real-time connectivity throughout their forestry operations, which are in remote locations in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique, ensuring that data flows seamlessly across  their various systems.

She explains, “At present, our systems are interconnected through microwave links. This network was established years ago and it is susceptible to lightning strikes, necessitating frequent equipment replacements. Moreover, battery theft is an ongoing concern. In certain regions, the installation of fibre optic cables is not feasible. While our current connectivity is the best option available, it does impose limitations on the solutions we can implement. For instance, when considering cloud technologies, we must ensure that our personnel in remote rural areas will be able to access the systems.”

Despite these constraints, she firmly believes that because technology is steadily advancing in South Africa, it’s worth exploring alternative methods, such as satellites, for their operations. She says, “This would allow us to leverage diverse connectivity approaches based on the specific areas we operate in."

Evolving role of CIOs  

Speaking on how she sees her role and that of other technology leaders, she says, “Traditionally, our role used to be confined to the back office, where we simply managed operations and ensured the lights were on. It was a business model that worked, as long as everything functioned smoothly. However, the landscape has changed significantly.”

She says the profound impact of technology on every organisation is now clear and that with a seat at strategic tables, CIOs drive technological enablement, understanding its capabilities, risks, and potential. “We straddle the realms of advisory and action, ensuring technology aligns seamlessly with business goals. In my case, I am a certified director, which grants me a unique vantage point to ensure that technological issues are elevated to the relevant board committees, safeguarding a holistic perspective on technology’s influence on business decisions.”

A leader nurturing growth

Leadership, for Masebolelo, is an embodiment of collaboration and empathy. She says, “As a leader, I value working closely with my team, helping them grow, and also advocating for more opportunities for them, which stems from my belief that empowerment forms the bedrock of progress.” This holistic approach allows her to oversee operations while nurturing individual potential, thus striking a balance between macro-management and micro-understanding.

Her passion extends beyond technology to include hobbies such as reading, gardening, and sewing. In fact, her sewing skills materialised into a humanitarian effort during the pandemic, as she crafted masks for the vulnerable.

She possesses a deep fascination for diverse cultures and holds a special admiration for communities that exhibit remarkable enterprise and creativity despite facing challenging circumstances. She believes that these communities exemplify the indomitable spirit of humanity, which serves as a constant source of inspiration for her own endeavours.

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