Miscellaneous Millennial Meanderings of a Vetiver Man

Duncan Hay

Coordinator: Southern Africa Vetiver Network

Institute of Natural Resources, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa

Tel: 0331-460796 Fax: 0331-460895 E-mail: [email protected]

Presented at the Second International Vetiver Conference, Thailand, Jab 19th to 22nd, 2000


This is an informal paper prepared as a basis for input at a panel discussion to be held at the Second World Vetiver Conference in Thailand, January 2000.


In November 1996 I was largely unaware of the existence of the “miracle grass”, and soil and moisture conservation and land rehabilitation were only peripheral interests. Then three men; Dick Grimshaw, Tony Tantum and Paul Truong descended on me and turned my professional life upside down. In the first article of the first ever SAVN Newsletter I described Vetiver as the “conservationists' Cannabis.” Unlike Bill Clinton I inhaled deeply and, just over three years on, I am firmly hooked. Still wet behind the ears, here I am attending my first World Vetiver Conference and looking forward to meeting similar junkies who have become e-mail and Vetiver soul mates. How far have I progressed into addiction? Even my prospective mother-in-law has been recruited into SAVN. How much further can one go?

What follows is largely from a personal and rather parochial view of coordinating the Southern Africa Vetiver Network for the past three years. The bias is African, particularly South African, and the focus is developing countries and the challenges we face as we enter the new millennium.

Coordinators of networks promoting Vetiver grass technologies operate at numerous levels and scales, and in contrasting physical and socio-economic environments. The roles of David Jobson in White River covering Mpumalanga (a province in South Africa), myself in Pietermaritzburg covering Southern Africa, and Dick Grimshaw in Leesburg, Virginia covering the world are fundamentally different. Yet we all face similar challenges:

Numerous other questions also pass through all our minds. Obviously, in many cases, we will have different answers depending on where we find ourselves. Different circumstances demand different solutions. This paper does not attempt to dictate what the various solutions to particular challenges might be. Instead, it simply puts forward a number of ideas on how some key challenges might be approached.

Sustaining a network – where do we find the money?

The perennial problem – how do we pay the bills? In the past numerous networks, including SAVN, have been reliant on donations and grants from international funding agents and large private corporations. The fortunes of the networks were dictated by corporate sector and international agency policy shifts – this year soil conservation might be a priority so money for Vetiver roles in; next year poverty alleviation is the priority so the money supply dries up. Clearly, the lack of consistency and control rendered this funding source unsustainable. The challenge here for networks is to move away from donation based funding to investment based funding – investment by those who will see either direct or indirect financial returns, or some other form of return for what they are investing. This is going to demand a fundamental change in the way we conceptualise and operate our networks. For individuals and organisations to invest they are going to want to see a service based network – if Anglo American Corporation is paying a membership subscription its mine-based environmental managers should have the latest Vetiver rehabilitation technology or advice at their finger tips. Information dissemination, as an example, will no longer be based only on what we as coordinators think is important but also on what the market regards as important. A lot of good can come out of such a shift. Network members are likely to be drawn closer. The network will no longer be some distant `nice-to-have' free service. Instead it will be close at hand and the vested interest in its survival will be strengthened. Also, if a service is paid for its perceived value will increase. This is all very well for the Anglo's and other corporate giants who can splash out a tiny fraction of a percent of their turnover on a Vetiver network subscription. But what about Siphiwe Zondi of Biyela, central Zululand who is unemployed, who obtains occasional income from sales of Cannabis, and who uses Vetiver hedging for contouring and to hide his illicit crop from prying eyes. How is he supposed to pay – the odd parcel of `pot' to the coordinator? Clearly, we have to look to other mechanisms and some form of cross-subsidisation has to come into play. A solution we are developing is to approach ten to twenty large mining and civil construction firms, commercial rehabilitation companies, government departments and parastatals who have a direct interest in Vetiver to become core corporate investors in the network. Conventional network members will pay a nominal fee and those who can't pay, predominantly the rural poor, will receive subsidised (free) membership. This form of investment will be linked implicitly to the level of service - through their operational divisions, core corporate investors are likely to demand greater services, normal members generally only want to be kept informed, and the rural poor only have access to certain network services.

Another way of sustaining a network financially is by developing a commercial division that effectively subsidises the network. There are definite opportunities in this direction but there are also problems. Let's use the Institute and SAVN as a particular example. We field numerous requests from contractors requiring Vetiver stock or technical services. One option is to levy a commission on the sales we facilitate. This has potential but is likely be an administrative nightmare. It also increases the price of stock; something we would prefer to avoid. Another option is to supply stock or services directly ourselves. With our agricultural training farm that contains a Vetiver nursery and with the expertise that exists within the Institute we have the capacity to do this. In this way we would certainly maximise the amount that could be ploughed back into the network. However, as operators of the network this places us at an immediate competitive advantage and I foresee conventional commercial operators crying `foul'.


Who do we target our promotion and support at to obtain maximum leverage? Again, it depends on what level the network is operating at. However, here are few ideas. When operating a national or regional network there are four specific areas where promotion and support could be directed:

Provincial and regional government departments/parastatals: In most developing countries the agent of service delivery is regularly a government department or a parastatal. In South Africa much of agricultural extension is within national and provincial agricultural departments. These departments also contract in consultants, private sector agencies and NGOs to assist in delivery. If these departments are familiar with and supportive of Vetiver technologies they will write the various applications into project briefs. This forces their clients and contractors to make use of the technology. A parastatal such as Umgeni Water (bulk water infrastructure and supply) is a specific example of where an organisation that is familiar and supportive has written the use of Vetiver technology into the technical briefs of numerous works projects. Umgeni Water has actually gone a step further by setting up a nursery to supply stock to its external contractors. With encouragement, those organisations that regularly have large civil construction projects can combine entrepreneurial development options using Vetiver with large-scale rehabilitation and stabilisation operations. These organisations generally know at least two years in advance where large works projects will take place. They can identify local entrepreneurs, support the establishment of nurseries, and when the rehabilitation takes place can purchase the locally available Vetiver stock – both sides benefit.

Local Champions: Coordinators of networks rarely have the time or resources to engage Vetiver propagation and works projects directly, or to network at the very local level. In fact, this is often counter-productive as the effort could be better spent on more strategic leverage. We need to rely on local individuals and organisations to do this. These local champions require continual and pro-active nurturing, support and encouragement so as to lever maximum activity at a local level. Where do we find these champions and what are we looking for in a champion? Beyond an obvious interest in Vetiver, ideally we need to source individuals that are located in an organisation with a natural resource or agricultural focus. The day-to-day activities of the individual should regularly bring them into contact with activities and individuals with interests in or need for rehabilitation and stabilisation works. They should preferably be local and settled rather than an external temporary staff member. Individuals from development, conservation and agricultural NGOs make ideal candidates. They usually have extensive networks ranging from government through the private sector to rural communities. They are well placed to lever funds, and they can generally operate more freely than individuals located in government and the private sector.

Mass circulation publications: The mining, civil construction, rural development, conservation and agricultural sectors all have widely circulated technical and non-technical publications and they are generally looking for pertinent articles. Articles specifically designed for these sectors can have a considerable positive impact on Vetiver technology use.

NGOs: In less developed countries, especially those where government's ability to delivery is limited, the responsibility often rests with a variety of non-government organisations. In South Africa, up until recently, small-scale farmers and rural residents generally knew more about Vetiver than the other sectors. This was because NGOs such as Eco-Link, The Valley Trust and the Institute operating in the rural development, conservation and agricultural sectors had actively championed it. These organisations are usually very effective in accessing communities and introducing new technologies as part of their operational activities.

Information dissemination

With the advent of electronic networking and the move to web-based publications access to and dissemination of information on Vetiver has become far more efficient. Information is at one's fingertips, world experts are an e-mail message away and, in the case of our most accommodating Vetiver experts, responses are often immediate. However, in developing countries the vast majority of people who could or do obtain benefits from benefits from network membership do not have access to telephonic communication, let alone the Internet. The challenge in the new millennium is the effective dissemination of information on Vetiver in an accessible format to these members. Conventional postage of newsletters and other information such as simple guidelines and fact sheets must remain at the core of network activities.


There exists a superb foundation of research for Vetiver technology. Much of that research is readily accessible. In developing countries the challenge is not to conduct technical research but rather to use existing technical research to inform and strengthen our methods of application and to increase geographical areas for application. With this in mind two technical research efforts that might have merit are the following:

For me the major research challenge for developing countries is in the realm of business and entrepreneurial development. Unemployment and a low skills base plague Southern Africa. It is also plagued by severe land degradation largely as a consequence of rural poverty. We need to research business development that provides entrepreneurial opportunities and income for the rural poor and at the same time contributes to improved caring for the natural resource base. Vetiver is an ideal agent that can contribute to this - technologies are simple, markets exist, and the natural resource benefits have been unequivocally demonstrated. We need to analyse the entire production system from propagation through to sales and marketing, identify and find solutions to various constraints and pitfalls, and demonstrate success through pilot projects. The Institute will be engaging this as an initiative over the next two years.


Despite all the challenges we face, network coordinators can take heart from the fact that we are promoting and supporting an invaluable technology with future uses that we have yet to dream about. I predict that, as the ethic of natural resource custodianship evolves so will the demand for our services increase and, with this demand, so will the resources necessary to sustain our networks role in. I don't think I am out of a job just yet!