By Jules Newton, programme director, Avocado Vision: Green Business Value Chain

Unprecedented glacial melts in Greenland in 2019. Permafrost releasing carbon monoxide at rates not factored into the climate change models. Killer heat waves threatening 200 million people in northern India. Millions marching across the world demanding climate change be taken seriously by governments. Conspiracy-level investments in climate denialist campaigns. Climate change is upon us. The tree huggers were right all along, and we’re all staring down the barrel of the gun. All we don’t know is how long it will be before it fires.

In South Africa we have been feeling the pain of climate change too. Cape Town and other Metros have been staring down looming water crises. And, due to the recent rains down south, the emergency has been averted for now. Johannesburg could very well face very similar challenges in a year or two if our rainfall drops for a few years in a row (as it often does). For most of us, what we do is watch nervously as the water levels in dams drop. We take shorter showers; try set up grey water systems, grow water-wise gardens that need less water, wash our cars with buckets of water, and imagine how we might survive a day zero in our cities.

It’s easy to sit back and blame our government for not seriously having their eye on the ball and allowing the money that could have been used to mitigate climate change risks to be fleeced from our coffers. Both the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs have been working the budgets they have been allocated as best they can for years, and have been working with the passionate and talented tree huggers to try and solve the looming crisis.

But government and the tree-huggers can’t be left to solve the issue alone – they need the talent and resources of the business sector to rally round and help them solve these issues at a level that will make a real impact on our water security and sustainability. We need to find business solutions to environmental challenges. And there are actually really tangible things we can do to head off the disaster. Business knows scale. Business knows markets. And business has the talent and resources to drive innovation.

What problem needs solving in South Africa?

A battle that Environmental Affairs has been fighting for over 20 years to protect our precious water resource, is the battle against the invasion of alien plants – these plants pose a very real threat to the amount of water running in our rivers and into dams. The plants are typically from other countries, with no local natural enemies, and so grow in their millions, unchecked by any natural foils. Research shows that they currently take up between 3% and 6% of South Africa’s useable water – in a water-scarce country that’s water we cannot afford to lose.

Enter, the Entrepreneurial Hero(ines)
Although in the environmental world, these invasive trees are an invading menace, when you talk business talk, they’re a valuable resource. Inputs into all sorts of supply chains in both existing and nascent industries. If entrepreneurs applied their minds a bit, they would find all sorts of ways of connecting this green gold into business opportunities that would harvest the resource, remove the menace, and restore water back into our thirsty water systems.

To solve the spreading aliens sucking up our water, we need to build a strong commercial demand for alien invasive plant biomass. Commercial demand for invasive biomass in the form of Gum, Wattle and Poplar tree – based products could really turn around the advance of the invaders and inject more money into the activity of sustainably clearing these trees.

Building a strong invasive biomass economy calls on business of all sizes to get involved. Big business is often the catalyst by creating demand for the invasive biomass product. Then middle-sized entrepreneurs rise to the occasion by putting together new solutions that meet that demand. Small businesses, often rurally based, link into those supply chains by clearing invasive trees in strategic water catchment areas to meet the demand for the biomass material, and the Department of Environmental Affairs and their partner NGOs ensure that the biomass is cleared sustainably and landscapes are restored in a way that means better quality agricultural land that has rivers flowing again after years of being dry.

All of this good can be created by brave and innovative entrepreneurs out there. There are so many opportunities to create great ecological outcomes through doing good business.

There are many opportunities for innovation within existing corporate supply chains to switch in invasive biomass as the raw material. Entrepreneurs and their corporate partners just need to apply their minds a bit to it. Pallets could easily be made of wattle, gum or invasive pine. Cardboard packaging material comes from wood pulp: an easy insert. Charcoal and firewood made from black wattle would be much more sustainable if sourced from water-saving contexts. Agricultural products like bio-char, cattle feed and mulch are being developed as we speak. Corporate furniture could be made from chipboard containing invasive biomass.

Entrepreneurs are often the ones who find social problems and invent business solutions to solve them. There exists here a perfect opportunity to contribute to water security and economic and social transformation in our country by great innovation, great business, and great partnerships across the supply chains.

It just takes some smart people to put this stuff together
There are many biomass-based products out there already currently linked to various sectors: wood fibre-based products; agricultural products; energy creation products. There is enough wild biomass around to support decades of production. And loads of science already created to learn from as you design your fabulous new innovation. Check in with the Avocado Vision Green Business Value Chain team if you feel inspired to create something brilliant in our country, and we’ll try to connect you to the support you need to make magic happen.

Entrepreneurs have a critical role to play in solving climate change. We all need you guys to rise to the challenge and see where you are able to make the difference.