Grootbos Foundation: Cultivating  harmony between Cape floral biodiversity and community livelihoods

The Cape Floral Kingdom is home to the highest concentration of plant species on the planet, and 70% of its 9,600 plant species grow nowhere else. Fynbos covers 80% of the region. Much of the Cape Floral Kingdom, including Table Mountain National Park, is a registered UNESCO-protected area. To survive, fynbos need to burn, but this could have devastating consequences, as was recently witnessed in the Pringle Bay wildfires. The Grootbos Foundation, a non-profit organisation, has a mission to conserve the unique Cape Floral Kingdom and develop sustainable livelihoods for the local population. Phil Murray, the General Manager of the Foundation, shared with BizNews that over the past two decades, they have meticulously observed and documented the 947 fynbos species at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Crucially, the foundation integrates conservation initiatives with community development, offering adult vocational training in horticulture, hospitality, and biodiversity stewardship. Their commitment also extends to youth development through sports programs, swimming lessons, and empowerment initiatives. Initially supported by the National Football League, the Grootbos Foundation has established a comprehensive children’s sports program, along with a multi-sports facility named Spaces for Sport in Gansbaai. This facility serves as a daily hub for 2,500 children, providing coaching, matches, and a nutritious meal. Given the region’s susceptibility to wildfires, the foundation also plays a crucial role in sharing expertise in wildfire management with neighbouring landowners.  

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction to the Cape Floral Kingdom and the Grootbos Foundation
  • 03:21 – Conservation and Community Upliftment
  • 04:06 – The Importance of Preserving the Fynbos
  • 06:10 – Biodiversity Surveying and Conservation Science
  • 07:23 – Rooibos and Honeybush Tea
  • 08:18 – Community Programs: Green Futures Education
  • 10:38 – Community Programs: Sports Development
  • 12:18 – Community Programs: Enterprise Development
  • 17:12 – Conservation Science and Partnerships
  • 18:07 – Impact of the Grootbos Foundation
  • 20:00 – Community Sports Facility: Spaces for Sport
  • 23:22 – Wildfires and Fire Management

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Edited excerpts from the interview

Protecting the minute diversity within the Cape Floral Kingdom. 

The Grootbos Foundation is about a two hour drive away from Table Mountain between Gansbaai and Hermanus. On the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, there is a luxury lodge called Grootbos Lodge and the offices of a foundation that was registered in 2003 called the Grootbos Foundation. We work at the Grootbos Foundation using funding and donations from corporates, CSI investments, family trusts, but also public funding to be able to deliver conservation work and conservation science in this natural landscape where we want to protect the minute diversity that’s within the Cape floral kingdom. But you can’t do meaningful lasting conservation if you don’t take the people who live in that landscape along with you. 

Grootbos Foundation is committed not only to the science of conservation and the landscape partnerships with other role players in a conservation landscape but also to developing vocational training and youth development programmes for all of the people that live in this area closest to where the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is. Includes communities from Franskraal, Purley Beach, Gansbaai, Stanford, and Elim and some of our programs stretch as far as Hermanus, Mount Pleasant, and Hawston as well.

947 fynbos ‘fire driven’ species at Grootbos

The real foundation of our work is that first, we notice the botanical diversity within this landscape. If you’ve got the right eye, you can be an amateur botanist, but if you’ve got the right eye, you notice if you look closely enough within the fynbos, which is such a mixed vegetation type, how much diversity there is. To the untrained eye, it looks like a fairly scraggly, scratchy kind of mixture of two-metre height vegetation, but you see it burst into colour, usually in our rainfall season, which is in wintertime. The diversity of our plants is vast for such a small geographical area and because the plants are diverse, the pollinators, the different insects and creatures, the mammals that live within the landscape as well as the birds, are also diverse. 

In doing the science of surveying what we have here so that we notice its beauty, and know what we have. It might be that we have already lost some species before we started counting what we have now. If we can survey the biodiversity, of what is currently here and then find a way to share the joy in that and share children’s conservation programs and a whole lot of other programs all focused on getting people to appreciate the wildness of the landscape that we live in, then they will help you protect it and conserve it. 

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Twenty years of observing fynbos species and contributing to conversation targets

We need to do that because we’re also in a fire-driven landscape. So we need humans to be careful about their behaviour when it is our summer season so that their casual behaviour might not lead to a fire that does a whole lot of damage and even damages human homes. Within Grootbos’ private nature reserve, we’ve been counting the botanical species. So, it’s the plants that make up this and the fynbos. So far, we’ve managed to count 947 just at Grootbos. But the Grootbos  Foundation is not only made up of botanists, but we also have entomologists who are sampling and surveying the insects. 

Grootbos  Foundation has been doing this for 20 years. And so we’re proud of what we’ve noticed and we share our joy in programs for adults. We want to encourage adults to find work opportunities within the landscape that help us contribute to conservation targets as well. And we want to share that joy with their kids as well so that people feel privileged to live in this beautiful area.

Programmes taught at Grootbos Foundation for adults: Horticulture, Hospitality, Biodiversity Stewardship

Our initiative, Green Futures Education, offers adult vocational training in three programs: Indigenous Horticulture, Hospitality, and Biodiversity Stewardship. These one-year programs are offered at no charge to the beneficiaries, as we intentionally select individuals from the community who have been underserved and have had limited opportunities. The participants may have family dependents or may not have completed their matric yet. Our goal is to equip them with a skill set after a year of studying with us, which includes one-on-one mentorship. Our small class sizes allow our teachers to provide personal mentorship and impart essential life skills that prepare adults to succeed in the workplace.

These three one-year programs enable us to graduate 40 people a year, including up to 24 in Indigenous Horticulture and Ecotourism. We also offer a Biodiversity Stewardship program, which is less classroom-based and more outdoor-based. This program is designed for individuals who prefer hands-on work over sitting behind a computer.

One of the skills we teach is the clearing of invasive plant species, which is crucial in our landscape because wildfires can be exacerbated if we don’t clear these species, particularly those from Australia, from the fynbos. These species also impact our water systems and natural watercourses.

We aim to protect the vegetation and the landscape as much as possible, preserving its state before human settlement, and ensuring that future human behaviour in this area doesn’t cause further damage. We provide this training to the adults who live here so that they can work in the landscape with skills that the landscape needs. Whether they are cutting and building mountain bike trails or hiking paths, clearing invasive plants, starting a firewood business, or engaging in sustainable flower picking, we equip them with the necessary skills.

All of our flower pickers are trained, have a permit, and pay to pick flowers, but they can then go on and sell them. They can also undertake erosion control and can be contracted by different farmers to do various work. We provide these skills at no charge to them so that they can improve their working lives and generate income for their families.

Children’s sports programme: Water safety programme, social safety net for teenagers

We offer a comprehensive children’s program known as Sports Development, led by a team of dynamic sports coaches. These coaches are unique individuals who use the joy of sports not to scout elite players for national teams, but to provide a social safety net and a safe space for teenagers and children every afternoon. After school, they come and play sports, regardless of their athletic abilities.While some kids do get scouted and recognized for their individual skills, our primary goal is to keep the kids safe, provide them with a daily meal, and offer positive role modelling from their coaches, who come from within their communities and share similar backgrounds. We utilise sports as an opportunity to deliver specially devised curricula on female empowerment, conservation for kids, breaking the cycle of gender-based violence, and HIV awareness.

During the lockdown, we also implemented a lot of COVID programming. Additionally, we teach kids water safety skills. We don’t aim to train them to become Olympic swimmers; instead, we teach them to swim so they can be safe in bodies of water.

Given our coastal location and South Africa’s long, hot summers, many children in non-fee schools in the Western Cape don’t have swimming pools at their schools and never learn to swim. This increases the likelihood of them drowning in the sea, tidal pools, rivers, and dams. Therefore, we teach children how to be water-safe at the ages of five and six years old.

We also have a teenage water safety program, which focuses on girls. We teach them to swim in the tidal pools here with our specially trained coaches, and then we teach them to surf. However, the program is built upon a curriculum that teaches mental health, resilience, and female empowerment to a group of girls. This is our model for youth development: using the fun of sports as a social safety net for teenagers in this area.

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Enterprise programme to guide high school students, encourage science careers

We also offer an Enterprise Development program, which guides high school students in making subject choices and career decisions at the right time to provide them with the most options for a considered career when they leave school.

Our teachers, as part of our team, visit local high schools and primary schools to help children with their subject choices and to initiate conversations about career planning, CV preparation, and choosing the right subjects. We make them aware of work opportunities within the green economy as well. Given our focus on conservation, we aim to share work experience and opportunities within the green economy space.

We aspire to inspire high school children at the non-fee school in Gansbaai to pursue science careers, particularly in life sciences. We engage with kids through our sports program to get them to start thinking about career pathways, and we encourage them to consider science pathways as well.

The top age group of our Enterprise Development program has two streams. One is designed to help people enter the working world and earn money, and the other is to encourage and train entrepreneurs.Participants in our program gain the basic skills of entrepreneurship and are given the opportunity to pitch their small businesses to receive seed funding and 12 months of mentorship. This support aims to set up their businesses for success within our communities.

We prepare them for a two-week work experience stint in a real business, providing them with a weekly stipend. In some cases, this may be their first earned income. This experience instils confidence in how to behave, prepare, and understand the realities of working in the real world. We have found that both of these programs help unemployed individuals become empowered enough to generate their own income.

Effective conservation is about building relationships with neighbouring areas

The majority of our team, which consists of 46 permanent staff members, is focused on delivering our human programs. Our smallest team, the fourth column, comprises scientists who survey nature and maintain relationships with other landowners in the area. Effective conservation isn’t just about preserving your patch of land; it involves building relationships with all neighbouring landowners, Cape Nature, and the Walker Bay Nature Reserve.

We engage in conversations with other role players to extend our conservation work into corridors, allowing nature to coexist safely near human settlements without conflict. After all, nature was here first, and humans appreciate its beauty—that’s why people have chosen to live out here.

Our goal is to find a way for us to live close to nature without causing any damage. We’re always looking for ways to extend the corridors of our conservation work.

A multi-sports facility created with sponsorship from the NFL 

In 2008, as the world was looking at South Africa in anticipation of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, our chairman crossed paths with Richard Scudamore, who was the CEO of the Premier League in the UK at the time. They identified that Gansbaai had no community sports facility, but there was available municipal land. In a great example of a private-public partnership, the municipality provided the land, our foundation had the idea and the ability to execute an ongoing program that would continue to serve the community, and the Premier League was able to access funding to leave a lasting legacy of positive impact after the 2010 World Cup.The Premier League continued to sponsor us for 10 years. During COVID, the Premier League had to reassess their strategy. We had open and friendly conversations with them, but their strategy shifted to focus more on their community outreach within the UK and to spread it to other organisations that do sports development worldwide.

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2500 children rely on Grootbos for matches, coaching and a daily meal 

We managed to establish a multi-sports facility in Gansbaai that we call Spaces for Sport. Since 2008, our foundation has ensured that a youth program is delivered every afternoon for the community to attend, receive a meal, and receive positive coaching. 

We started with just soccer, but I’m proud to say that we’ve expanded our sports offering to include whatever sports attract the kids. Whether they’re hockey players, track and field experts, cross-country runners, or female rugby players, we’ve added all of these sports to our offering because we want the sport to be the fun activity that gets kids to show up.

Once they start showing up, they get into a cycle of enjoying the fun of hanging out with their friends, working in a team, learning personal skills, and spending time with positive role models in their coaches. Then there are all the other benefits that we add from running our other programs, which we call our Sports for Good programs.

Currently, we have two and a half thousand children who rely on us every day of the week and on Saturdays for matches, coaching, and a daily meal. We also deliver fun holiday programs for kids to ensure they aren’t neglected during school holidays. We always have something fun happening at the community sports field in Gansbaai, which is free for anyone who shows up. This might be a good opportunity to share the amazing story of how this multi-sports field and facility came to life.

Sharing expertise on wildfire management with landowners 

Fortunately, the most recent wildfires in our area spared our private nature reserve and the other members of the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy. However, surrounding areas, including Pringle Bay, Franskraal, Stillbaai, and the Cape Agulhas National Park, experienced aggressive, uncontrolled wildfires. It was a period of intense heat and wind.

We were spared this time, but we are under no illusion that fire won’t touch us. We have a creative, innovative, and up-to-date fire management plan. We share our expertise with all the other landowners within the same conservancy.

Our plan involves maintaining fire breaks and conducting controlled burns at the edge of the autumn and spring seasons, under the oversight of the Fire Protection Association. This allows us to identify blocks of fynbos that might not have burned for more than a decade.

Naturally, the fynbos prefers to burn every six or so years. This gives it the best germination potential for the next strong regrowth of fynbos. To protect human assets while allowing the fynbos to burn in a safe way, we conduct controlled burns. The idea is to build up what we call a patch mosaic burn pattern. This means that some of the older blocks of fynbos, where there’s a lot of dead, dry matter that would make a fire much more dangerous, are burned in a controlled area on a still day. Once it’s been burned in a controlled burn, it’s less likely to be a place where a wildfire would stop. It would be able to slow the spread of a wildfire when it came up to a block of vegetation that had been burnt in a controlled burn.

We manage our own fire management plan on our Private Nature Reserve. We share and make fire management plan recommendations with our neighbours, and we all support each other. We are always on call when we need to go out and help with water bakkies and fire trucks. We are always there to help everyone else in the landscape when people have to face the threat of fire.

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