Text Katy Johnson Photos Forestry South Africa
The FOREST21 project kicked off virtually on 14 April 2020 with Ministers, academics and industry leaders from South Africa, Finland and Norway expressing their support and excitement for this collaborative project that hopes to revolutionise forestry-curricula in South Africa’s higher education institutions (HEI).
Why so much excitement about a curriculum upgrade?
FOREST21 is as much about reinventing forestry graduates as it is about the curriculum, as FOREST21 coordinator and FSA Director of Business Development, Mr Norman Dlamini explains:
“Traditionally, education systems teach us to become better workers, but not necessarily creators of job opportunities and new products/services that could solve the challenges humanity currently faces. Yet, entrepreneurship seems to offer a solution to South Africa’s triple ills of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and as such, it is a solution that needs to be thoroughly investigated and hopefully implemented.
"The forestry industry in South Africa needs proactive graduates that are innovative and can solve real work-based challenges in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. All this is aligned to cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among graduates while they are still in training, which is one of the core pillars of the FOREST21 project and what makes it so exciting and relevant.”
FOREST21 is built on three core pillars: entrepreneurship, climate-smart forestry and student-centred teaching methods.
Student-centred teaching methods facilitates the need for graduates to be able to show reasonable levels of autonomy when entering the workforce and be adaptive problem-solvers. It is also crucial for the development of an entrepreneurial mindset amongst graduates. The incorporation of climate-smart forestry is in response to the need to stand together to face the global threat of Climate Change.
“The role of forestry in this is becoming ever more prominent and as such, climate-smart forestry has never been more relevant. Climate-Smart Forestry is a targeted approach to increase the climate benefits from forests and the Forest Sector, in a way that creates synergies with other needs related to forests. The definition may sound complex, but it can be simplified to the Sector’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase its efforts of mitigating against climate change”, Mr Dlamini continues.
The need for collaboration
Key to the success of FOREST21 is the collaboration between academia and industry, as Senior Advisor, Häme University of Applied Sciences in Finland, Ms Teija Lehtonen explained in her presentation on the second day of the virtual kick-off.
“To foster an entrepreneurial mindset, students need to be presented with real-world problem-solving that requires collaboration, critical thinking, innovativeness and self-directiveness to answer. Fortunately, problem-solving is an everyday occurrence for the Forestry Sector that is continually needing to adapt, evolve, innovate and reposition itself to remain productive and globally competitive.
"The FOREST21 project, through industry-academic collaboration, will position students as part of the problem-solving team helping to address real-world forestry problems with their industry collaborators. These collaborators will act as mentors for the students, who in turn will offer fresh eyes and ideas to the project. Through the students, industry collaborators will have an access conduit to the global network of academic experts and research associates linked to this project and those associated with it”, Ms Lehtonen explains.
While future generations of better-equipped graduates, with entrepreneurial skills sets, appears the most obvious long-term benefit for Industry coming from the FOREST21 project, the list of additional benefits from being part of the curriculum development process, like improved knowledge transfer, access to academic expertise and a platform where new solutions and innovations can be developed and tested, should see industry partners quickly coming on board.
“We have already seen the impact that similar schemes in Ghana have had, where students have aided the cocoa industry in innovating new products and solutions for the utilisation of cocoa by-products. There is no reason why the same success cannot be replicated in forestry”, Ms Lehtonen concludes.
Forestry South Africa (FSA) has played a key role in this initiative.
"From the early conception stages, FSA has played a crucial role in coordinating South African partners and drafting the funding proposal”, explains Mr Dlamini. “Going forward, FSA will continue to play a key role mobilising industry support. As South Africa’s premier and largest forestry organization, FSA members own or manage 93% of all timber plantations in South Africa. It will be these members we call upon to host many of the planned student challenges and provide the real-life challenges our students will play a role in solving.”
Wider social benefits associated with future generations of forestry-entrepreneurs
In his presentation, Mr Dlamini discussed the wider social, environmental and economic implication of the FOREST21 initiative.
“While the Sector is a substantial contributor to job creation in South Africa, especially in rural communities where there are the highest levels of unemployment and individuals living below the poverty line, this is still not enough”, Mr Dlamini stated emphatically. “As a Sector, forestry is continually striving to increase levels of employment, both in terms of those directly employed by the Sector and those indirectly employed.
"FOREST21 will help the Sector achieve this by sowing the seed of entrepreneurship amongst future generations of forestry students, who one day will drive and shape this Sector. By developing an entrepreneurial mindset of the students of today, we will help create an array of new job opportunities tomorrow. This is what is needed if we, as a Sector, are going to achieve the sizable contribution to South Africa’s economy we have set ourselves and help elevate the high unemployment rates currently forcing so many South African households below the poverty threshold.”