Developing a Fibre Micro-industry to Generate Economic Growth from Degraded Land

This project is an analytical contribution to creating employment and reducing poverty, using fibrous plants as the product category. The overall aim of Community of Practice or CoPs, is for Research Chair-led alliances to communicate their solution-oriented research findings in given forums to various stakeholders, government officials, practitioners, policy makers, academics and civil society, with an intent to provide solutions that can mitigate social and economic challenges faced by South Africa.

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"Improving the consequences of mining as a case study for diversifying economy in the current legal framework" - Guided by the SDGs.

Fibre plants such as bamboo can be used to transform degraded land into a restorative agricultural sector and a dynamic manufacturing sector, which provides employment opportunities, inclusive socio-economic growth and poverty reduction in mining communities beyond the life-of-mine. The aim of this multi-disciplinary project is to determine through a Community of Practice whether fibre-rich biomass, including bamboo, can be used to remediate degraded land in a way that is economically feasible, leading to enhanced economic complexity, the establishment of a bamboo micro-industry, and crucially, higher value-add in output and job creation.



This COP will potentially produce cross-disciplinary research in a real and deliberate manner; with a possible direct application to a specific set of interventions in the environmental, materials science, legal and economic areas; and the final possibility of actual sectoral intervention by private and public actors (through industrial policy and investment for example) which could generate employment and reduce poverty. To do this, we will approach the research questions through cross-disciplinary engagement around the product:

  • Economic perspective: How economic complexity be built on the basis of an understanding of local socio-economic linkages?
  • Environmental perspective: What environmental factors influence the ability of rapidly growing, fibre-rich plants to remediate damaged and polluted land?
  • Material and Engineering perspective: What are alternatives and implications for downstream processing options?
  • Legal perspective: What regulatory barriers exist, and how can they be addressed?

This COP is motivated ultimately by the need to create employment and reduce poverty in South Africa. We aim to provide an analytical contribution towards achieving this NDP goal. In doing so, we intend to focus on a particular product category – bamboo or possibly other hardy plants – in a bid to understand the elements required for growing this sector. Making the argument for this sector as an investable proposition however, requires an understanding of the economic, legal, materials engineering, bio-production and environmental elements of this specific product. It remains impossible to convert the area of hardy plants or bamboo specifically, into a viable poverty-reducing node of economic activity, without this cross-disciplinary engagement around the product.

This proposed COP research programme intends to do this in a very deliberate manner. Our aim is to determine whether fibre- rich biomass, including bamboo, can be used to remediate degraded land in a way that is economically feasible, leading to enhanced economic complexity, the establishment of a bamboo micro-industry, higher value-add in output and job creation.

To do this, several environmental, chemical processing, economic and legal questions need to be answered. Our research methodology draws on the fields of economics, environmental science, law and materials science. We will combine techniques such as input-output tables, product space techniques, life cycle analysis, firm, government and expert interviews and legislative comparison throughout the study.

The DPRU will be focusing on the ‘Economic Opportunities of Plant Biomass’, looking at economic complexity and economic development, through concepts such as product space(s) for fibrous plants, and opportunities for diversification. DPRU Director Prof Haroon Bhorat is project leader: “Poverty reduction requires a process of sustained economic growth. Economic growth, in one conception of it, is the process of building complexity through the accumulation of capabilities. A better understanding of the determinants and constraints to economic development through the complexity lens, lies at the heart of this multi-disciplinary programme.”

In light of the Community of Practice being a trans-disciplinary research undertaking, the DPRU is working with a number of researchers across other faculties in UCT (see here)

  • Faculty of Law and The Mineral Law in Africa research unit – Prof. Hanri Mostert; Herman Meyer; Prof Alexander Paterson.
  • Faculty of Engineering & Built Environment and the Minerals to Metals Research unit – Prof. Dee Bradshaw; A/Prof Jenny Broadhurst; Adj/Prof Brian Chicksen; Greg Hangone.
  • Faculty of Engineering & Built Environment, and the Future Waters Research unit, and the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research – Prof. Sue Harrison; Adj/Prof Mike Solomon; A/Prof Jenny Broadhurst; Dr. Bernelle Verster.

While we are tasked with the economic complexity element, Mineral Law in Africa and Minerals to Metal (M2M) will be tasked with responsible mine waste management, education, Limpopo Platform etc.; Center for Bioprocesses and Engineering Research (CeBER) will focus on waste biorefineries, productivity of fibrous crops, minewater and agriculture and fabricated soil (re-purposing mine waste); and Future Water will be tasked with sustainable sanitation, wastewater biorefineries and MineCare.

In addition to the final research report, it is important to note that out of the study, we hope to be able to draw a framework to inform further trans-disciplinary research of this nature, for other projects.

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