South Africa Spekboom

A Visit to Our South Africa Project

Last week I was in South Africa with our corporate partner and the local team as our nature-based project in the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR) enters Phase 2.  Phase 1 evaluated the opportunity for conservation agriculture, Spekboomveld restoration, wetland protection and management, Resnosterveld management, and invasive plant to biochar (charcoal) conversion. 

The two questions I’ve been reflecting on since I’ve returned are 1) Why was the trip such a success? And 2) Given our overall needs for taking carbon out of the air, how are we going to quickly scale any effort?

Guaranteeing the success of trips like this is no small feat.  What made this trip so successful beyond the fact that everyone was just so pleased that we could be out and about after a two-year (yes, COVID) hiatus, was the mix of skills and perspectives and the openness of discussion.

South Africa Discussions

We had experts in carbon (both local and global), methodologies, economics, ecology, law, business, mapping, and soil science.  When we did not have a specific expertise, we shelved the issue until we could get some guidance.  But more important than the mix of experts was the openness of discussion with egos and biases left behind and that led to a quality of group thinking I rarely experience but always enjoy.

Many have heard me talk about my perspective that complex problems require teams comprised of individuals with “T” shaped skill sets (not my construct) – expertise in one of more areas (the I of the T) and general knowledge about a broad section of topics (the top of the T).  Between the four members of our corporate partner, the four of our local partner, and the two N4J staff, we suited that model perfectly.  The results showed.

How To Scale

The issue of how to scale efforts such as those we are taking on is an enormous challenge.  We will not be able to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement unless we can get enormous areas covered by forest protection, improved landscape management, and restoration initiatives.   It’s all well and good to set big targets but how, exactly, are we going to get there? 

It all comes down to people.  The people that live in the places that are being most impacted by climate change. The people that, typically, do not have the resources to switch their land use practices. The people that only want what you and I want – family stability, dignified work, and a future for our kids.

As one example, it’s likely that we will develop conservation (regenerative) agriculture as one of our principal goals.  The local GCBR team has done an awesome job in the recent past getting such practices adopted over about 70,000 hectares but we need to get to nearly 400,000 hectares.  This takes us back to one of the core strategies and approaches of N4J and that is to tap into local ‘trust networks”  –  organizations and individuals that have a history with those who can serve as catalyst for adoption and growth.  If you do not have a scaling strategy (or at least a working theory of change) going into a program like this, you’ll never be more than a gold nugget on a barren landscape.

Looking Ahead

This gets me back to where we are and finding a path forward.  Our corporate partner is willing to invest early (a rarity) and understands that these projects are complex and often fail. If we fail, we aim to ‘fail fast,’ adapt and move on.  An adaptive approach does not gloss over the challenges but sees the challenges as an opportunity to learn and work with local people in their self-interest.

The conservation agriculture and Spekboomveld restoration look promising although more research needs to be done and a true scaling strategy needs to be developed.  Alien plant to biochar conversion is worth a small trial.  The wetland management and Resnosterveld management were too fragmented or too costly.

In Short

The reinforced lessons from my South Africa trip were:

1) Work with those who are truly willing to be your partners,

2) Build on existing trust networks,

3) Be willing to fail (but fail fast and move on), and

4) Ensure that a center of all of our efforts are the people we are trying to engage on addressing our changing climate. If you lose sight of the people, the project will not be durable. 

Help local people achieve resilience and we all win. For their future and ours.


  • Hank Cauley

    An engineer who later got a business degree to achieve social and environmental justice through existing economic structures. He’s started or built many organizations and projects. Hank lives in Falls Church, VA, with his wife and is an avid bee-keeper.

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