Managing the assets of the natural world

Rowena Hay works with water and environment issues through Umvoto Africa

Rowena Hay works with water and environment issues through Umvoto Africa

In a time when start-ups and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) are the talk of the town, and the social entrepreneur is given much deserving praise, Umvoto Africa is both a role model and stalwart.

Sustainable geoscientific and technological solutions

Established in 1991 by Rowena Hay, Umvoto Africa has spent the past 25 years treading start-up and SMME paths, building up a presence and overcoming significant challenges. Today, the organisation continues to uphold its mandate of researching and crafting sustainable geoscientific and technological solutions that address resource, environmental, social and economic concerns. At the same time it is a successful business that engages with a wide range of clients.

“I named the company after the respectful word some Xhosa brides use for water,” says Rowena Hay, hydrologist and disaster risk reduction consultant. “Our goal is to consult in integrated water resource management, contamination and remediation studies, education and training and process facilitation. We also look to ecological risk management studies that evaluate the human, environmental and business risks associated with natural disasters.”

Real living on the planet in real time

Umvoto Africa has consulted with numerous organisations in Africa, from Benin to Zambia, and has worked with international organisations such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth secretariat, the World Bank and the South African government. The company is focused on creating solutions to real-world problems which impact environment, country and government.

“Our focus is on discovering to what extent we can use science in real time to solve problems, how we can adapt our behaviours to live more effectively on this planet, and to what extent we can use science as part of our adaptation tool,” says Hay.

“This is why I do the work — it is real living on the planet, in real time. What we do we call ‘natural asset management’, working in water and the environment and finding ways of understanding these and the interdependencies between the different elements of our natural environment.”

Harnessing human potential

The work done by the minds at Umvoto Africa covers a wide range of earth sciences. From experts in hydroclimatology to geology to the development of young earth scientists, especially women, Umvoto works with people on ideas and solutions with significant long-term potential.

The organisation collaborates with universities in South Africa, France, the UK and Germany. Its internship programme gives students the opportunity of applied research for postgraduate theses.  Several of the theses have been nominated for, or won, awards both locally and in the UK.

“We encourage all the people who work for us — from the junior staff to the most senior — to contribute towards the advancement of science and their own professional reputations through publication in academic and professional journals and books,” says Hay.

They are also encouraged to present at international and national conferences. This provides them with clear pathways to registration and their continued professional development through the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions.

Work underpinned by science

In the research and development arena, the organisation relies on inventive application of aerial and satellite remote-sensing, geographic information systems and space-geodesy as earth observation technology for hydrogeological exploration and mapping.

In addition, Umvoto Africa works with commercial drilling contractors in the design and construction of groundwater monitoring and production wells. Other facets include the design and implementation of flow and test pumping trials, the application of computer-based software for three-dimensional numerical modelling of groundwater flow and the planning for operational monitoring of groundwater well-fields.

A catch-flow concept

“Ultimately the work we do gives us a unique view of time,” says Hay. “It allows us to see the environment today and yesterday, with a glimpse of tomorrow. It is about managing the assets of the Earth. We want to take more from the environment, but resources are finite. ”

She says it’s a catch-flow concept — put in now to take out more later, or take more now, knowing you have to pay back later. It is a time and resource management problem and Hay likes its jigsaw nature and looking for ways of solving it.

Highlighting water

As Hay points out, human beings can go without food for a while, but nothing on this planet can go without water. There is an urgent need to do more with less when it comes to water use, finding ways of using this natural resource carefully while not impacting on economic development.

“Water is an enabler for economic growth and the interface between the environment, social and economic benefits, and capital. Water is essential for optimising how we use all these natural capital aspects,” says Hay.

“Water, more than any other natural asset, shows us the constraints of nature. Acknowledging the limits of nature is a very important part of growing up as a country. In a way, a well-adapted society recognises these limits and finds ingenious ways of working within these restraints.”

New science of hydrogeodesy

A recent project undertaken by Umvoto Africa underscores the value of the work they are doing, and how a vital resource like water can be managed more effectively.

The project was the first of its kind in South Africa. It used data from global navigation satellite systems alongside radar-satellite interferometry and ground-based microgravity measurements to detect ground-surface deformation and subsidence associated with groundwater extraction. This new science of hydrogeodesy has potentially massive implications for the management of water resources in dry and desert regions.

It is inspirational work, which has incredible potential. Hay concludes by saying that, for any business to succeed, you need a team that shares a common vision and purpose. “This is one thing which Umvoto Africa definitely has,” says Hays.