Saturday, February 28, 2009

Prince Albert’s Experts to Speak at First Karoo Development Conference

- Linda Jaquet -

Prince Albert’s Sue Milton and Judy Maguire are two of the eminent speakers at the first Karoo Development Conference and Trade Fair to be held at Graaff-Reinet from 25 to 27 March. They will join other experts in their field in looking at all aspects of the Karoo as a region, its sustainable deve-lopmental potential in terms of tourism, agriculture, business opportunities, both current and new, and broadening the region’s economic base.

The Conference’s theme is “Open Spaces, Dynamic Places”, which reflects the commitment of the Centre for Deve-lopment Support at the University of the Free State’s belief in the huge reservoir of natural resources, creativity and innovation in the vast arid area. They also believe that the event will provide a platform for networking among Karoo entrepreneurs.

The Conference is the result of two years’ research by various universities, led by the Centre for Development Support and its main sponsor is the Open Society Foundation. It will be opened by Deputy Minister Sue van der Merwe, who is the “political champion” of the Central Karoo District.

Increasingly there is discussion in international circles about the economic potential of deserts and arid areas. In South Africa, the Karoo, Kalahari and Namaqualand count as our local “deserts”. According to Professor Doreen Atkinson of the Centre for Development Studies, these days the word “desert” no longer denotes a place without development, but rather an area with its own assets and particular economic potential. People are now starting to realise that deserts have their own key resources, found in four main categories: Desert tourism, Desert agriculture, industry and mining.

Desert tourism is becoming increasingly popular as city folk seek an escape from crime, grime and the rat race. They look for an environment where they can rediscover solitude, space and soul. Atkinson and her colleagues believe that the Karoo has huge tourism potential because of its picturesque villages, unique architecture, breath-taking natural landscapes and the growing game industry. In the last ten years, guest accommodation has grown, as have many new tourist activities such as 4X4 routes, astrotourism, game drives, fossils and Khoisan art.

The CDS describes Desert agriculture as being based on a range of new niche markets for products in arid areas. These include “biblical fruits”, such as olives, pomegranates and figs, as well as prickly pears and agave, and also a new generation of indigenous products, such as hoodia and buchu, with medicinal qualities.

New industries can also be established in desert areas, the CDS says. The economic potential of solar and wind energy still has to be developed in the Karoo. At the same time the Karoo boasts the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere (at Sutherland) and a new telescope is being constructed between Carnarvon and Williston. The CDS points out that it is precisely the solitude and isolation of the Karoo which makes such industries viable.
The uranium potential of the Karoo has long been known, and the move to non-fossil fuel energy makes uranium mining in the Beaufort West area a distinct possibility.

Atkinson notes that the economic potential of the Karoo is shown in its growth rate. In the Central Karoo District, the growth rate was 4.2% per annum between 1995 and 2004, which made it one of the fastest growth rates in the Western Cape.

Atkinson and her colleagues at the CDS believe strongly that the Karoo will never come into its own if its residents and leaders do not come together and create their own collaborative networks. Furthermore, they need to lobby national government to provide adequate funding for regional development, and lobby provincial governments to begin to co-ordinate their economic and infrastructural plans.

They see the Karoo Development Conference as the first step. Its accompanying Karoo Trade Fair will help entrepreneurs of the Karoo showcase their products and build new networks with their fellow Karoo citizens.

The conference website is:
Interested participants can contact Ms Anita Harmse on 072 992 5099.

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