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Living Landscape Lab

A hub of learning and innovation focused on ecological entrepreneurship and climate change adaptation within an agricultural valley

Photo of Pienaar Du Plessis
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Living Lands

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

1. Wolseley Water User’s Association (A non-profit group of farmers and other stakeholders that work on water allocation and alien clearing on private land) 2. Department of Agriculture: LandCare (A government program responsible for conserving agricultural land. Mobilizes government funds for alien clearing along water sources) 3. Stellenbosch University Department of Conservation Ecology (Conducts research on the landscape related to biodiversity, alien invasion and sustainable agriculture) 4. Stellenbosch University Sustainable Agriculture Programme (Conducts research on sustainable agriculture) 5. WWF-SA Freshwater Programme (Focused on protecting and restoring wetlands, rivers and other water sources) 6. Water Research Commision (A governmental funding programme that funds research related to water issues)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Republic of South Africa

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Upper Berg and Breede River Catchment, comprising the towns of Wolseley, Tulbagh, Ceres and Rawsonville, approximately 10 700km² in size

What country is your selected Place located in?

Republic of South Africa

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As part of our Living Landscape approach, we commit to work on a landscape for at least 20 years, and have been working on this landscape for the past 4 years. During this time we foster collaborations in order to work towards a shared vision of what a living landscape might look like. We see living landscapes as dynamic places  that can sustainably support both humans and nature.

Partner organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, are already working within this landscape to secure water resources for the primarily agricultural community, through removing invasive alien plants, integrated catchment management, and restoring riparian habitats. Living Lands has been engaging with these organisations for the past four years.

Because the main focus of our work is partnership building, we connect with a diverse spectrum of stakeholders across a variety of sectors. Access to this wide network of potential partners is our key to success, as emerging challenges and opportunities in the landscape can swiftly be matched with projects and the necessary partners they require. 

This specific landscape was selected because it forms part of the upper reaches of the Berg River and the Breede River Catchments, two catchments part of the Strategic Water Source Areas for South Africa. It provides water for one of the agricultural hubs of the country, as well as provides water for the city of Cape Town that is home to more than 4 million people. In 2018 this area went through one of the most severe droughts in decades, with the city of Cape Town coming precariously close to 'Day Zero', when all available water sources would have run out. With the severity of climate change only due to increase, it is vital that water sources be secured to ensure the future existence of both agriculture and the towns and cities reliant water from these catchments.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

This valley is a hub of agricultural activity with diverse cropping systems. Vineyards occupy the more Southern parts of the valley, fruit orchards (mainly stone fruit and pears) dominate in the North, and even some wheat and canola production can be found in the North-Western parts of the valley. Because of the favourable exchange rate and larger international markets, most of what is produced here is earmarked for export, especially fruit production. 

It is also home to the Fynbos biome, one of the most species rich biomes on earth. Due to agricultural activity, however, most of the pristine Fynbos can only be found in mountainous areas.

The valley is the origin of two very important rivers, the Berg River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Breede River which flows into the Indian Ocean. Along the way these rivers provide millions with drinking water, as well as irrigation for one of the agricultural hot spots of the country.

The valley consists of a series of small towns that are surrounded by farmland. Because of the prominence of agriculture, it is one of the main sources of employment in the area. The majority of the population did not finish school, while only 1% has had any tertiary education. This means that most work in the area is of an unskilled or semi-skilled nature.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Current challenges

Current challenges can be summarized as a need for two things: water and jobs. 

Agriculture forms part of most people’s livelihood of this area, but it is under threat. The primary concern is an increasing scarcity of water. Decreasing rainfall and increased incidence of droughts due to climate change are major threats to the sustainability of the agricultural sector.  

Invasive alien plants (mainly Acacia, Eucalyptus and Pine species) are another major driving force.  These species have extensively invaded riparian habitats, thereby reducing biodiversity, changing the morphology of rivers, and decreasing available water by an estimated 30%. 

Constraints on government budgets and a lack of sufficient capacity also prevents effective governance of existing water resources.  

The farming sector is currently dominated by industrial forms of agriculture that are unsustainable, fragile and a direct contributor to climate change and water pollution. While it is currently profitable to farm in this way, the constraints described above will make this method of farming increasingly unfeasible. 

The agricultural sector is one of the main employers (especially of unskilled and semi-skilled labor) of people in this area. Due to a decrease in available water, stagnating economic conditions in the country, and a move to automation, this sector is facing severe pressure to employ fewer workers. Rural economies are otherwise small, with only a handful of industries and businesses offering employment outside of agriculture. 

A lack of a culture of innovation in the environmental sector is another challenge. Funding sources are already shrinking due to budget cuts on governmental level, and may continue to do so as human development is seen as separate from environmental protection. Opportunities for alternative ways of funding environmental work, such as business creation, is under utilized in this area and will become increasingly important in the future.

Emerging challenges (2050):

Energy shortages are predicted to become more serious. The national power supplier, Eskom, is on the brink of collapse. It is also wholly dependent on coal based power generation. Because of current legislation, there are very few options for independent production of power and the national government is also refusing to invest in renewable technologies on a scale that will make a difference.

An increasing lack of capacity to deal with municipal waste and waste water (sewerage) is also emerging as a problem on the landscape. Failing infrastructure and declining governance capacity could lead to water and soil pollution and methane emissions from landfill. A reduction in water quality will also threaten the agricultural sector who rely on irrigation for their crops, especially the export fruit market who are bound by higher quality standards than the domestic market.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Agricultural and ecological systems both require enough water to function. Alien clearing and restoration is a core intervention to ensure the continued supply of water to both systems. Here are many opportunities for NGO's and entrepreneurs to innovate. Using biomass from alien vegetation clearing to generate energy, making furniture, creating mulch for farmers; all these value adding activities can be used to create new industries or to subsidize further clearing.

Adapting to climate change requires transitioning to forms of agriculture that are more environmentally sustainable and resilient. This spans the spectrum from low-tech to high-tech methods. It will also require farmers to adopt new business strategies. New modes of farming require new kinds of knowledge and learning. This vision will bring together farmers, universities, government and other stakeholders and empower them to ask the right questions and co-create the knowledge needed to transition to sustainable and climate resilient forms of farming.

To compensate for reduced governmental capacity, natural resources can be collectively managed through a partnership of various stakeholders on the landscape. While enforcement of legislation is still important, more emphasis is placed on building relationships with stakeholders. Natural resource governance is no longer the sole responsibility of a centralized government, but involves NGO’s, citizen groups and local forms of government. This will, however, require ambitious changes in policy to accommodate this change in natural resource governance.

With current trends, the severity of climate change will inevitably reduce the scope of agriculture in the region. To counteract the loss of job security, new alternative employment opportunities need to be created. A new economy based on restoring, maintaining and sustainably utilizing ecosystems could unlock many new livelihood opportunities.

Creating a central hub of learning and innovation will attract people and organisations with the right expertise and vision. Such a hub will allow for networking, building collaborations and cross pollination. Working together while using new approaches (design thinking, rapid prototyping, etc.) can unlock the innovation needed to address the many environmental challenges facing the local food system.

Because the valley lends itself to both wind and solar power generation, it presents many opportunities for small renewable energy businesses to flourish. A change in policy (that is currently on the horizon for South Africa) will allow for small independent producers to generate energy and sell it back to the government.

Diverting food waste and garden waste from landfills into a composting project can create jobs and prevent precious nutrients from being lost from the system. Ecological wastewater treatment involves using constructed wetlands or anaerobic digesters that can also generate methane gas for energy.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Each spring after the rainy winter season, the mountains and valleys shine silver with small rivers, flooded wetlands and running streams. Degraded river beds and wetlands have been restored, and fynbos habitats flourish. 

Even though droughts are much more common these days, the farming community is still going strong. Agriculture has shifted to a more regenerative model of farming that focuses on building soil health that will retain water more effectively. Irrigation is closely monitored and used as efficiently as possible.

Clearing aliens, restoring habitats and reconnecting human and natural systems have also allowed for a whole new sector of the economy to flourish, the green economy. A new form of co-operative decentralised governance has emerged. A partnership of private, state and non-profit entities are now managing, allocating and stewarding the natural resources in the area. All 'waste' is transformed into resources. This has also allowed the creation of many small social enterprises that have created many local employment opportunities

New NGO’s have come into existence to support the regenerative farming movement that has sprung up in the valley. Together with nearby Universities, farmers are using the latest research to farm and to regenerate the agro-ecosystems.

The valley is now seen as a hub of innovation in the agro-ecological sector. Because it brings together stakeholders from across the sector, it is a place for the cross pollination of ideas. This has allowed for the creation of many new agro-ecological enterprises, as well as many opportunities for experimentation and applied research. While the challenges of the country and of climate change has caused innumerable changes, this connected and creative community has been able to adapt to every new challenge they faced.  

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Living Landscape Lab project envisions a people and nature centered approach to innovation. We believe that truly sustainable food systems can only be reached by treating ecosystems and agricultural systems as one intimately coupled entity. The complex challenges that the local landscape faces, and the increasing pressure and chaos that climate change will impose on the system can only be solved through creative innovation by a diverse group of stakeholders that take ownership of their landscape. These stakeholders are involved in all aspects of the food system and will come together to learn, experiment and grow together. Thus, we envision a central hub that will act as a point of contact and facilitative space for the change required for the coming decades.

The Living Landscape Lab will consist of three interconnected functions:

1. An ecological business pioneer and succession program 

2. An agro-ecological school of innovation

3. A co-working space

The Living Landscape Lab aims to facilitate innovative solutions to current and emerging landscape based agro-ecological challenges. 

Ecological business pioneer and succession program

The business pioneer and succession program will be an ecological business incubator and accelerator program based on the ecological principle of succession. Succession is the process by which ecosystems re-establish diversity after a disturbance (such as a flood or fire). The pioneer phase is where hardy, quick growing plants cover an area after disturbance. They often modify the environment to make it more hospitable for other species to enter. Once they have fulfilled this function, they die back to make room for more complex assemblages of species. This process repeats itself as the ecosystem becomes increasingly diverse. 

This program will use similar principles to grow ecological businesses. The program aims to support the launch of local entrepreneurs and small businesses, with the scope to have a positive ecological impact within the catchment. Enabling a supportive environment to enter the market and upscale when ready is a key element of the program. This program will leverage seed funding* along with long term mentorship to support the rapid expansion of ecological businesses.  

The historical context of South Africa resulted in the majority of citizens in the country not having sufficient access to education and skills development. Many workers in the catchment are unskilled or semi-skilled. This means that a skills transfer model will be most appropriate to ensure the long term success of start-up businesses. The program will focus on building networks of local practitioners that are already established in the sector and providing many opportunities for mentorship and two-way learning between start-ups (providing new ideas and innovation) and established practitioners (providing knowledge and expertise). 

This program will serve two kinds of start-ups: 

The pioneer program is for start-ups that are currently an innovative idea, or are in the very beginning phases of their journey. This program will focus on skills development, networking, capacity building and learning through apprenticeships.

For example, a worker that has worked in implementing alien plant clearing wants to start a business producing chipped mulch that can then be sold to farmers for reducing evaporative water loss. While they may have the connections that can supply the biomass for their venture, they require general business and accounting skills, as well as market research to determine the size of the market. 

For participants that require longer periods of learning, apprenticeships with local organisations are also available, that will allow upskilling of participants while providing an income. This will be especially beneficial for emerging farmers that need to learn the diverse set of skills required to run a successful farm.

The succession program aims to grow and support existing start-ups that have a proof of concept and have implemented their business in some way. This program will provide seed funding for businesses to scale up their impact and to establish themselves in the sector, as well as the networks and mentorship offered to the previous program.

For example, an NGO that has had a successful pilot project implementing riverbank restoration, but now requires funding for an office space, as well as better networks with the government in order to secure longer term governmental contracts.  

Agro-ecological school of innovation 

The agro-ecological school of innovation will serve farms, NGO’s and businesses that are already established, but want to experiment with new innovative techniques or solutions. 

The Breede River Catchment is already home to many practitioners working on the landscape within the agricultural and ecological fields. These practitioners are often confronted with questions that emerge as part of their work. These questions often fall outside of the scope and mandate of these practitioners (due to constraints of time and funding), but can enhance the effectiveness of their existing practice, or help to adapt their practice to changing contexts. For example, river bank restoration is already ongoing in the catchment, but the effectiveness and long term viability of these sites are still unknown. The purpose of the school is to enhance the capacity for innovative experimentation and prototyping** within the catchment, and to disseminate that innovation to the rest of the landscape. 

The school of innovation will provide opportunities for immersive learning, connect participants with external sources of expertise, and provide funding and space for practical experimentation. Focus areas will be regenerative farming, climate change adaptation and integrated catchment management and water and food security.

Co-working space

The co-working space will be the physical hub of the other two programs and will also offer a central meeting place for landscape practitioners, ecological businesses and regenerative farmers. It will facilitate a work space that will allow for connection and networking between individuals and organisations working within similar fields. It will also provide the essential infrastructure that small businesses and NGO’s need to function for a reduced cost. Businesses from the pioneer and succession program will also be housed here. This will allow them to connect and build networks with other successful organisations from the very start of the program. 

*Seed funding is small amounts of funding given to start-ups with the intention of supporting the venture at an early stage until they can begin turning a profit.

** A prototype explores the future by doing something small, speedy, and spontaneous; it quickly    generates feedback from all key stakeholders and allows one to evolve and iterate an idea.



Adapting to a drier climate and finding more efficient and effective ways to clear invasive plants and restore river habitats will require a continuous process of learning and a continuous cycle of adaptive innovation. The Living Landscape Lab has the ability to catalyze the inspiration and expertise required to effectively address these challenges. 


Lower income groups make up a large portion of the population on the landscape. This means that most can only afford cheap, highly processed foods. Increasing employment in the valley is one way of directly improving access to better quality food. The investment in small diversified market gardens and other agro-ecological businesses will also increase the local availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. Having an organization on the landscape that educates and demonstrates new ways of producing and eating food will also change the culture of food; allowing for healthier and sustainable diets to become more popular.


Due to the high level of unemployment in the area, creating jobs is an essential component of improving the livelihoods of citizens. Creating and supporting new businesses and entrepreneurs is one of the few ways that it is possible to create new jobs. But because the landscape is isolated and far away from the resources and connections of a city, an organisation such as the Living Landscape Lab is required to connect the landscape with such resources. 


The perception exists that if you want a better life then you need to move to a city. Mass migration to urban centers across the world attests to this belief. Those that are born in rural places and who do not have the means to move to the city often feel constrained by their environment. Young people on this landscape are presented with very few opportunities for employment and even fewer opportunities for growth and development. This leads to a lack of inspiration and engagement within professional and civic life. One of the main goals of this project is to create a vibrant culture of innovation within a rural landscape. We believe that the changemakers of the future are already present on the landscape, they just need help in unlocking their potential and connecting with a wider network. 


We envision that the co-working space proposed will offer access to technology and tools not currently available in the landscape. The pioneer and succession program also has the potential to develop new forms of technologies suited to the landscape.


South African policy supports the development of landscape focused innovation hubs. Many policies support development work and job creation. Environmental policy such as the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) has mobilized large amounts of government funds that go towards short contracts for alien clearing and other natural resource management work on this landscape. Such an innovation hub will in turn also influence policy development by demonstrating successful innovation and implementation.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Rethabile Konopo

Welcome Living Landscape Lab to the Vision Prize!
A great way to improve and revise your work is by connecting with others and receiving feedback, Rural food hubs: Growing a locally connected and sustainable food economy, Old Naledi: Networking Food, Ideas, and Innovation are other Visionaries who are also exploring [a theme or commonality]. I encourage you all to provide some feedback on one another’s Vision submissions through the comments section to support the refinement of your work!
Happy connecting!

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