South Africa’s biodiversity is one of the main sectors suffering from a severe skills shortage, yet there is a huge need to protect our country’s natural heritage. Nurturing the best minds to safeguard the future of the green economy is an important investment. Janavi Da Silva, Director of Programmes at GreenMatter unpacks her experience of the industry for us.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you got into the environmental industry and why?
I have a very similar story to most entrants into the biodiversity and environmental sector. I started studying natural sciences straight out of school – the first person in my family to attend university and completely clueless about my future, asking myself, “Where will I work one day and what will I be able to do with these skills?”
While studying at university I felt as though I was being taken further from the answer to this question. I reluctantly started working in environmental consulting after university, and eventually completed a Masters in Environmental Science part-time while I worked full time.
I felt disillusioned by my work and felt that I wasn’t making the impact that I had hoped to make when I was at university. After many years in environmental consulting in large infrastructure and mining projects, I joined GreenMatter, leading the various Human Capacity Development projects for the biodiversity, water and environmental sectors. My passion for shared value is fulfilled by GreenMatter’s enviro-social entrepreneurship and leadership work.
Tell us about your role at GreenMatter and about some of the work you do?
My work as Director of Programmes at GreenMatter has allowed me to interact with some of the most inspired youth that South Africa’s environmental sector has to offer. I feel very privileged and hopeful about the future of the country while relying on the creativity and inspiration that sits as potential energy in our youth, waiting to be uncovered and amplified.
My goal is to help people who struggled like I did to find meaningful work in the sector and have a vision for their careers but lack the support to reach their career goals. We provide this support to help inspired individuals to gain the skills, tools, and networks to make their highest contribution to the environmental sector in South Africa and the world so that these sectors can become the dominant drivers of local and global economies in the future.
Do you believe there is an adequate representation of women in decision-making roles related to biodiversity and environmental governance at all levels?
The presence of women in the biodiversity sector has grown and continues to grow over the past few decades, and women do hold prominent roles in the sector. However, it’s hard to say whether there are enough women taking up leadership roles.
There’s still a lot more room for female leaders. And that’s something we are trying to encourage through the work we do with GreenMatter and through our various partnerships, where we are working to draw out the future female leaders from this generation’s group of emerging scientists, through programmes like our Women in Biodiversity initiative, where we profile women specifically.
Have you experienced any challenges as a woman working in this industry, if so how have you overcome them?
As a woman, there are a lot more hurdles and obstacles you need to climb in terms of others’ perceptions of you, and I think one of the ways I’ve managed to do that is through maintaining a level of diplomacy and professionalism.
No matter what your background, I’ve found that being a woman in the biodiversity sector and engaging with people and organisations from other sectors in particular, just requires you to adopt this attitude, because you’re essentially an ambassador for the industry.
Particularly among individuals and organisations that we as biodiversity professionals often work with, you do tend to feel like you have to work harder as a woman to avoid stereotypes, like ‘saving the planet’ is considered women’s work, or even just the notion that you’re only here to save the planet, to be taken seriously as a professional.
South Africa’s biodiversity is one of the main sectors suffering from a severe skills shortage. Why is this the case and how do we resolve it?
The biodiversity sector is fairly ‘young’ and we’re still in the process of trying to find our feet and formalise the work that we do.
While that does have certain positive implications, like allowing us to adapt to changes going on in the world, this also means that the biodiversity goalpost is always shifting. It’s a very dynamic field, and trying to identify and pin down what skills are needed is a continuous process.
So that’s what GreenMatter is currently involved in, working with a wide range of stakeholders across industries and sectors to develop a national strategy aimed at solving this problem.
Why is the green economy important for a country like South Africa?
Pulling the South African economy in a greener direction ensures we are investing in economic activities and policies that would reduce the impact of climate change on the country and the world at large, through the correct management of waste and the creation of resource efficiency in general.
Business decisions that support those fundamental benefits to the environment across all sectors not only ensures a better outlook for the environment but also contributes toward a stronger, more inclusive economy.
Tell us a little bit about the GreenMatter Fellowship?
The GreenMatter Fellowship is designed to support individuals to become leaders in their respective environmental fields through access to financial support for post-graduate studies, a network of over 300 Fellows and experts, and a full suite of leadership, personal and professional development programmes.
The GreenMatter Fellowship works with the whole person to provide essential skills for the workplace to enable them to enter the workforce with clarity, focus and confidence.
Through a range of comprehensive skills development programmes, GreenMatter Fellows learn to understand the sector, how it functions, who are the role players, what is required to succeed in the workplace, how to conduct interviews, how to approach people and situations using emotional intelligence, business etiquette and how to manage their personal finances.
Any advice for the budding female biodiversity entrepreneur or champion?
There’s a saying I heard recently – “workplace yoga: chin up, head down”. In other words, if you are in a position where you are able to grow and learn, you need to put your head down and do the work and develop skills that will help you deal with complex relationships.
If you as a woman can hone these skills, while of course having firm boundaries in place when it comes to professionalism in the workplace, then do your best to persevere and rise above controllable issues. When there is a lack of ethics and the values of the organisation no longer align with yours, then it’s time to move on.
Author: Liesl Frankson