Lessons in Sustainable Development from a Pioneer in Africa

Lessons in Sustainable Development from a Pioneer in Africa


For many people, the idea of building sustainably simply means adding a rainwater tank and a solar power system and job done. But there is so much more to it.

Just how much scope we have for improvement here in Australia was brought home to me in a recent conversation I had with a truly inspirational guy by the name of Tom Palmer on a recent episode of the Spaces podcast.

Tom has one of the most enviable lifestyles that I’m sure many of us could imagine. The short version of Tom’s story goes something like this: young guy graduates from landscape architecture in Sydney and finds himself in London working for a leading property development consultancy focusing on conservation and sustainability.

By serendipitous accident, Tom becomes the consultancy’s ‘Africa guy’, and today spends his time travelling the world helping create sustainable property developments that help the environment, wildlife and communities exist in harmony – along the way helping to create some amazing developments for the likes of Microsoft’s Paul Allen.

Development and conservation don’t often come up in the same sentence, but since returning to Australia, Tom can see some valuable lessons in sustainability for us here at home.

Sustainability as a Necessity

As Tom explains, working in Africa, sustainability is a necessity rather than a nice-to-have after-thought. “A lot of sustainable design and work that we do, sustainable architecture, sustainable infrastructure systems are a matter of necessity. Resources are scarce. Water isn’t always abundant, sunlight is often abundant, and so it makes sense to leverage them as much as possible,” Tom says.

“You don’t even need to think; I need to make this building sustainable, you’re just doing it from the outset, but the sustainable building is just one aspect of it. What I find really exciting is the sustainable operation of, not just the building, but a whole community.”

As Tom points out, it’s about looking at your entire footprint. “It’s not just about building a building and going, well, great it doesn’t use this much power, and it uses less water, and we used all local materials. What happens next? How is that building participating in helping communities, whether that’s through generating tourism revenue that can get to those communities, or whatever,” he says.

Think of it as Holistic Sustainability

For Tom and his team in Africa, the focus is on how do you deliver a 5-star, high value tourism experience with as small an environmental footprint as possible – what he calls holistic sustainability. Interestingly, in Africa, it’s more about the staff footprint than that of the guests.

“On some of these projects, everybody is thinking about the guest footprint. But it’s usually a lot smaller than the staff footprint. They live out there permanently. In Africa there’s typically three to 50 staff per guest,” Tom says. So it requires thinking in a broader way. “How do you make the whole community sustainable? Where is that food coming from? Where is that waste going? Are they happy? Are they healthy? And that’s pretty exciting in a place like Africa,” he says.

But as Tom explains, it’s never perfect. “You can’t do everything right. It’s about saying, well, this is what we can do. You’re never going to get a 100 percent tick from everyone, but you know you’ve gone as far as you can for that product in that environment, and then the knock-on effect is where the ongoing impact happens. It’s a lot more than just a rain tank,” he says.

You can hear the entire conversation with Tom Palmer here.