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The runner with a tree on his back

Blog | Wed, 04 Nov, 2020 · 8 min read
Siya running with a tree on his back

To mark World Cities Day, we profile Siyabulela Sokomani, a young South African committed to greening his township. The environmental issues he raises awareness about are at the heart of UNEP’s work on forest conservation and restoration, including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 and UN-REDD, the UN partnership on climate and forests, which has mobilized US $1 billion to help forested developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.


For those who were spectating during the 2019 Cape Town marathon, watching a pack of 20 runners with trees on their backs snake through the crowd of competitors was probably a highlight of the race. That was Siyabulela Sokomani and his friends, who through his initiative, Shoots and Roots Agriculture, are trying to bring trees and greens to the Khayelitsha township on South Africa’s Western Cape.

Growing up in Khayelitsha, Sokomani barely saw trees. Environmental protection was not a top priority for a community where every day was a struggle to survive.

It wasn’t until secondary school, when a geography teacher set up an environmental club and began to teach the students about native flora, that he realized that he was living in a manmade desert.

“I learned about trees in the books I used to study,” Sokomani said. “But I would only see them for real in the rich areas of Cape Town. There was not a tree to be seen in our townships.”

In 2001, their environmental club competed in a city-wide competition and won. The prize was several saplings: the first trees that he and many of his classmates had ever seen. In those saplings that still stand at the high school, the seed for Sokomani’s career and future in agroforestry was planted.

After graduating from high school, Sokomani worked as a barber, saving up money to enrol in a three-year horticulture program. He then joined the South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, tasked with greening townships and schools. Over the course of his tenure, he helped plant more than 20,000 trees at schools across the region.

“Tree planting and environmental awareness should be every citizen’s duty in this country,” he said. “The green industry can be a powerful creator of sustainable jobs, along with the more obvious positive environmental impacts. South Africa should lead to curbing climate change through green initiatives.”

Siya at the Nguni Nursery (@ Siyabulela Sokomani)
Siya at the Nguni Nursery
© Siyabulela Sokomani

Now, at age 35, Sokomani is a green entrepreneur and owner of tree/plant nursery called “Nguni Nursery,” which is home to over thousands of plants and trees, using controlled-release fertilisers that are less harmful to the environment. Indigenous trees are important to Sokomani, and he believes that if rural communities acquire the skills to take care of their degraded land, they would be able to earn a living from the land and be less likely to move to cities.

“There is a future in trees,” says Sokomani. “To the youth in Africa, I always say it is very easy to start a horticulture business because your initial inputs are right in front of you. You can get seeds from a tree or from a forest. You can do division and other propagation techniques and just start a business.”

Sokomani is also working on another serious issue in the area - childrens’ malnutrition. He founded the Township Farmers’ NGO with child rights activist Ondela Manjezi to help plant kitchen gardens with children in the townships and nurture a life-long love of growing green things.

In 2019, Sokomani was elected as one of five youth ambassadors by the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), a project that has African countries committed to restoring over 111 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. The ambassadors are helping restore degraded forests, farms and grasslands, and serve as inspiration to other youth to follow suit.

Meanwhile, Sokomani will continue to run marathons with a tree in his backpack. The memorable stunt is raising interest – and funds - through the #runningtreecampaign. Thanks to the 2019 marathon, Sokomani and his friends were able to raise enough money to plant 600 new trees in Khayelitsha, slowly transforming the township from desert to oasis.

Watch this video about Sokomani’s work on Reuters.

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