Lynedoch village
Lynedoch eco-village (Cath Everett)

While the whole eco/sustainability thing doesn't seem to be that much of a big deal in South Africa, I've nonetheless happened upon a couple of enlightened local initiatives just over the last week or so.

In fact, although such discoveries appear to fly in the face of Stellenbosch's reputation as being a bastion of arch-conservative Afrikanerdom, the area would appear to be leading the way in what still seems to be a minority sport elsewhere in the country.

As for the first initiative to grab my interest, this was the Lynedoch eco-village. Located near the well-known Spier wine farm just outside the town itself, it's apparently the only development of its kind in the whole of South Africa.

And one of the things that makes it special apparently is that, not only was it designed with a host of lovely ecological/environmental sustainability principles in mind, but it was also built from the ground up to be a socially, aka racially, mixed community.

While such concepts may not be particularly radical in the UK, in South Africa, which is still scarred by the forced resettlement policies of the apartheid era, the idea of deliberating creating a diversified rather than racially monolithic community is a novel if, at times, challenging one given ongoing sensitivities and the everyday potential for misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, some 34 residential plots at Lynedoch have either had, or are currently in the process of having, homes built on them, 15 of which are designated for people on low incomes who are eligible for government housing subsidies and belong to either black or coloured communities.

Another means of trying to address generations of inequality in the country is by putting child education and welfare at the heart of the eco-village's activities.

As a result, a Montessori-based pre-school has been set up to cater to the needs of 40 children as well as a primary school for a further 475, who mainly come from the families of local wine farm workers.

Sustainable development

Each of the houses, meanwhile, must be built using environmentally friendly materials such as adobe brick (clay and straw), sandbags or straw bales, and projects are in place to ensure that energy generation comes from renewable sources.

By the same token, household effluent is treated using a variety of techniques ranging from anaerobic digestion to biogas digesters, the methane gas from which is used to power kitchen stoves, while the resultant recycled water is used to flush toilets.

As to where the idea for the eco-village came from in the first place, however, it was the brainchild of Prof Mark Swilling, divisional head of sustainable development in Stellenbosch University's School of Public Leadership, and Eve Annecke.

Annecke, an educationalist by background, also founded and now runs the Sustainability Institute, which was set up at Lynedoch in partnership with the University in 2000, a year or so after their original brainwave took shape.

Not only does the institute act as a vehicle to channel external funding into the eco village - although the aim is to make it economically self-sufficient over time - but it also runs a Masters course in sustainable development for both domestic and international students. Research and any practical projects are, unsurprisingly, centred on the settlement, which, in turn, benefits from the broad range of new ideas being explored.

As a quick aside though, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the boutique Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, northwest London, do pop in. Every single penny of the profits generated by this social enterprise, which was set up by Sally Wilton and is run by local volunteers, go to support the aforementioned Lynedoch community.

Wilton's latest venture, The Nomad roaming pop-up cinema she established with George Woods, also donates around 50% of its profits to the eco-village too.

Biodynamic farming

My second encounter in the area of eco-innovation, meanwhile, took place at a 'Winter Harvest Table Lunch with Farmer Angus' at the Spier wine farm.

The interesting thing about Farmer Angus is that he uses biodynamic principles to raise cattle, sheep, laying hens and broiler chickens as well as to grow vegetables, animal feed and vines on the 54 hectares of farmland that he leases from Spier, which is itself known for its sustainability work.

While I must confess that I, in my simplistic ignorance, had thought that biodynamic farming was just about planting, cultivating and picking crops in line with different phases of the moon to ensure a more abundant harvest, I have since discovered that it actually comprises an entire philosophy and way of doing things.

Essentially it's an holistic agricultural approach, developed by German philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, which views plants, the soil and animals as a single, interrelated ecosystem or living organism, which has the potential to be self-sustaining if managed correctly - not dissimilar in nature to the Gaia theory put forward by Professor James Lovelock, in fact.

Important features of the approach, therefore, include using manure from livestock to maintain plant growth by recycling nutrients; a focus on plant, insect, bird and animal biodiversity and wellbeing; and employing traditional crop rotation methods in order to ensure that the land doesn't become exhausted. Some people even take it a step further and include staff wellbeing in the mix as well.

Although dismissed in some quarters as "pseudoscience" because of its spiritual/cosmic elements, Farmer Angus is nonetheless a complete advocate of the method, to the extent that he is seeking "biodynamic accreditation" from German NGO, Demeter (Greek goddess of the harvest) International, which guards the use of its trademark and the "biodynamic" moniker jealously.

So tough is it to join the biodynamic club, in fact, that it generally takes at least three years to get aspirant sites up to scratch, not least because Demeter refuses to certify bits of farms here and there, preferring instead to adopt an all or nothing approach.

Which just goes to show that if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Or something like that.


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Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband