Grootbos Nature Reserve, located in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape, offers luxury five-star accommodation in the midst of rare fybnos and milkwood forests.
Of course, that wasn’t what attracted us - rather it was the Grootbos Foundation's efforts towards eco-tourism in South Africa through conservation, reforestation and social upliftment that gained our attention.
The Grootbos Foundation: Green Futures and Growing the Futures
Established in 2005 in order to run the non-profit activities of Grootbos Nature Reserve, the Foundation is home to the Green Futures Horticultural and Life Skills College and the Growing the Futures project, both providing training to unemployed individuals in the community.
Green Futures began when Michael Lutzeyer, owner of Grootbos, wanted to train unskilled people from local communities and find work for them in fynbos landscaping and horticulture.
With an initial investment from DEG (German Investment and Development Company), which supported the establishment of the training programme on a rand-for-rand basis over a 2-year period, Green Futures has been taking on 12 unemployed students since 2003.
We met with Lily Upton of the Groobos Foundation.
Lily spends her day working for the conservancy, dealing with the social media aspect of the business, taking care of award and funding applications and editing.
Passionate about fynbos, conservation and permaculture, Lily took us to Green Futures to see how the students were doing.
Busily planting agapanthas, Selena Danisa is just one of the programme’s success stories; originally from the Eastern Cape, she joined Green Futures in 2005 and is now the nursery manager, teaching students how to do cuttings, transplanting, how to clean the seeds and much more.
Nomvumiso Viola Siyotywa came to Gansbaai in 2003, where she worked at a Shark Diving Company before seeing the advertisement for Green Futures.
After completing the course, she joined Green Futures as a trainee facilitator, later doing her Higher Diploma in Adult Basic Education and Training (HDABET) and today, runs the life skills programme at Growing the Future. “I like what I’m doing," she tells me. “I like teaching people and sharing my ideas with other people”.
Khanyisa Dyesi, also from the Eastern Cape, was looking for work when he heard about the foundation. “I was studying tourism, but didn’t have the funds to continue. In any case, I was always more interested in nature. Now I am here, I am happy and it’s thrilling”, he told me.
To be accepted, students must have Grade 9 and be able to speak and understand basic English, horticulture teacher Sharlene De Villiers told me. Sharlene has been at Grootbos for 12 years, 5 of these as a teacher.
She teaches students how to identify different plants (they get to know at least 120 different ones from the area, mostly fynbos), how to sow seeds, care for seedlings, propogate plants, identify soil types, increase soil fertility, and deal with pests and diseases, to name a few.
Students also learn basic life skills, including computer skills, literacy, numeracy how to create a CV, apply for jobs and conduct an interview. They also help students get their learner’s licences.
Each student is taught the fundamental skill of composting, and has their own vegetable garden.
This means they can choose what they want to sow and take care of it right until harvest time, taking their fresh, organic vegetables home with them. Students are even paid a small stipend to meet their expenses, and all books, stationery and clothing is provided.
Green Futures is also linked to the Eden project in Cornwall which enables three students and a staff member to visit and work in different biomes, meet new friends and learn about horticulture, tourism and diverse environmental issues at one of the world’s leading educational tourism destinations.
Green Futures aims to be a self-sustainable model, generating funds through the sale of indigenous plants and landscaping services.
They are also supported by the income generated from eco-tourism and donations from guests, many of whom tour the different projects run by the Foundation.
In the longer term Green Futures intends expanding its courses on offer to include training in ecotourism, hospitality and nature conservation.
Grootbos Foundation: Growing the Futures
The second non-profit initiative of the Foundation is the Growing the Futures programme, which trains eight women from the local community to grow their own fruit and vegetables using permaculture methods, and teaches ethical beekeeping and successful animal husbandry.
Taught by Diane van der Walt of the Koedeberg Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology, it was heartening to see permaculture in practice, with companion planting, natural pest controls, mulching and organic soil preparations and vermiculture (worm farming) resulting in thriving Mandala and trench beds that were overflowing with produce (despite being planted in sand originally).
This organic produce is then used by Grootbos’ kitchens, and a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables is sold at the spaza shop at discounted rates. For students, the course is fully subsidised – they receive transport, food, tools uniforms and all their study materials as well as a small stipend to cover their weekly costs.
The course is also part-financed through the sale of produce, ensuring that students contribute towards their education through their practical work.
Grootbos Foundation: Other projects
Another programme run by the Foundation is Dibanisa, where 20 underprivileged kids each term get an introductory sports lesson, learn about the importance of plants, the marine big 5, how to make things out of recycled goods, participate in beach clean ups and go camping to learn about sustainability and the environment.
There’s also the Spaces for Sport project, in collaboration with the Football Association of South Africa, which led to the opening of the Gansbaai communal sports centre, a multipurpose facility where local children can participate in sport, access professional coaching and learn about the environment.
Conservation at Grootbos
Naturally, conservation is also paramount at Grootbos; with an enviable location in the Cape Floristic Kingdom, Grootbos Nature Reserve is home to over 750 species of fynbos.
I was fascinated to learn that the Cape Floristic Kingdom is the smallest of the world’s floral kingdoms, but is relatively species rich with over 9000 species, 70% of which are endemic to the area). Unfortunately, hundreds of these species face extinction.
Lily showed us around the reserve, which boasts some of the world's most distinct plant, animal and bird species.With the Field Guide to the Flora of Grootbos Nature Reserve and the Walker Bay Region by Sean Privett and Heiner Lutzeyer, identification became much easier.
We spotted the rare Erica Irregularis on the Fynbos Trail, keeping a keen eye out for some of the area's fauna, which includes bucks, baboons, porcupines and even leopards.
We reached the Milkwood Forest, home to ancient milkwoods (some up to 800 years old).
Grootbos Foundation: Future Trees Reforestation Project
One of only 10 of its type in the world, a large portion of the forest was destroyed in a 2006 fire, giving rise to the Foundation’s Future Trees reforestation project, which has planted over 1500 indigenous trees (including milkwoods, stinkwoods, pock ironwood and wild olives grown by Green Futures students).
Guests at the reserve are also encouraged to plant trees to offset their carbon footprint; they receive a tree planter’s certificate and can even follow their tree’s progress on Google Earth.
The Future Trees programme aims to restore the forest to its original size in the 1930s by planting an ambitious 10 000 trees.
While there is opportunity for further green initiatives, Grootbos certainly has social upliftment covered, and I hope that this culture of educating, training and community development can be replicated by other institutions.
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