From pioneering inventions that keep swimmers safe from sharks to a company saving the planet one fibreboard sheet at a time, sustainability-focused innovation is blooming in the Winelands. RICHARD HOLMES shines a spotlight on three inventive enterprises with an earth-friendly approach.

With innovative biomimicry inspired by the Cape’s abundant kelp forests, the SharkSafe Barrier is an effective non-lethal shark deterrent.

Sharksafe Barrier

For centuries biomimicry has informed many of humanity’s greatest innovations. Leonardo da Vinci took inspiration from birds when sketching his flying machines, while everything from spider’s silk to the hooks of the humble burdock plant – hello, Velcro! – have sparked invention and innovation.

In the Cape coastal town of Gansbaai it was the thick forests of sea kelp that made shark conservationist, researcher and filmmaker Michael Rutzen stop and think. Noticing that great white sharks avoided these kelp beds, he decided to use them as protection when filming underwater.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Rutzen – together with researchers and engineers from Stellenbosch University – created the SharkSafe Barrier. The barrier comprises PVC pipes anchored to the seabed to create an artificial kelp forest that can be used to protect bathing beaches and specific stretches of shoreline.

But simply recreating the kelp from plastic pipes wasn’t necessarily enough to keep white sharks from breaching the barrier. Instead, the SharkSafe team – Dr Sara Andreotti, a Stellenbosch University marine biologist specialising in white shark research; Prof. Conrad Matthee, a zoology and evolutionary ecology professor; Laurie Barwell, a coastal engineer; and Dr Craig O’Connell – looked to combine Rutzen’s insights with research into how magnetic fields can be used to deter sharks.

Sharks hunt and navigate using hypersensitive organs – the ampullae of Lorenzini – in their snout. If highly charged magnets were used to overwhelm these receptors with magnetic fields, the scientists reckoned, there would be another reason for sharks to stay away. Merging the two concepts has created a highly effective barrier, and trial sites in Reunion, the Bahamas and Gansbaai – targeting both great white and bull (Zambezi) sharks – proved remarkably effective, with no sharks entering the zone protected by the SharkSafe Barrier.

While the SharkSafe anchors create rich artificial reefs beneath the waves, it also offers opportunities for the coastal economies on dry land.

SharkSafe was developed primarily as a non-lethal exclusion barrier that is highly selective towards large predatory sharks while having minimal impact on other sea life. Unlike baited drums or shark nets, other sea animals – including fish, seals and dolphins – can pass through the barrier freely with no risk of entanglement. In fact, the structural bed used to fix the plastic piping to the seabed often creates artificial reefs that support marine diversity.
“Lethal control measures are outdated, exempt from endangered species protection regulations, and attacks still occur on ‘protected’ beaches,” says Gracie White, head of Global Ocean Investments for Conservation International’s CI Ventures, which recently invested $250 000 in SharkSafe. “It’s time to modernise, for both marine biodiversity and human well-being. The SharkSafe Barrier offers a proven, eco-friendly and effective solution.”

The investment is an important turning point for the project and will help in the shift from product development and research to raising the profile of SharkSafe worldwide and increasing the brand’s prominence in the so-called ‘blue economy’. Key to this is protecting bathing beaches in areas where all-important tourism industries have been affected by the presence of sharks.

“We can now position SharkSafe in a broader context and really work towards assisting coastal economies,” says Dr Andreotti, who was in the process of shipping the first commercial installation of the SharkSafe Barrier when I spoke to her. While the destination is officially under wraps until the barrier is in the water, this is certainly a milestone for the decade-old project.

“What is so exciting about this is that we are finally protecting a beach,” she continues. “Until now we have been working with sharks and creating a product that is a shark repellent strong enough to withstand ocean conditions. Now, finally, we can have it in the water to protect water-users and coastal economies.”


Making carbon dioxide the new gold? It may seem like a far-fetched concept, but it’s precisely what the founders of TOCO hope to achieve with their new carbon-linked digital currency and payment platform.

With TOCO, everyday purchases make incremental action against climate change as easy as scanning a QR code.

The idea behind TOCO is to establish what CEO and co-founder Paul Rowett dubs a ‘carbon standard’ with our daily spend on transactional activities creating a demand for atmospheric carbon reduction through positive climate action. Built using blockchain technology, TOCO is not a cryptocurrency without underlying value, but is instead positioned as the world’s first currency that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

If that all sounds a little ephemeral, in practice it’s fairly straightforward. TOCO is short for Tonne of ‘OCO’, the molecular formula for carbon dioxide. Using the TOCO app – available for Apple and Android operating systems, and through a web browser – a user exchanges rands, or any other currency, for TOCOs at the daily rate. At the moment one TOCO costs R195.

Each TOCO represents the reduction of one tonne of carbon from the atmosphere through carbon mitigation projects.

“Those underlying projects that reduce carbon could be anything from solar and wind energy projects, where there is an avoidance of emissions, to assets where emissions have been reduced,” says Rowett. “Then there are removal projects where it is proved that carbon dioxide has been removed from the atmosphere by soil sequestration, forest planting.”

Once a TOCO has been purchased, it can be used to pay for services and products at participating merchants. Within the app a map highlights participating TOCO merchants close to the user. At present there are roughly 150 participating merchants in and around Stellenbosch. When it comes to spending TOCOs, users enter a rand amount at the retailer or service provider and an equivalent amount in TOCOs is deducted from their account, along with a 1% platform transaction fee. Merchants are charged a similar 1% commission fee when converting their TOCOs back into rands.

Paul Rowett, CEO of TOCO.

Equally useful is the option for seamless peer-to-peer payments, much like the hugely popular Venmo app abroad. Each TOCO user has a unique QR code, which can be used for fast and secure payments between two phones.

While Rowett and his co-founders – Niel Schoeman and Joe Pretorius, also co-founders of Vumatel – plan to scale TOCO rapidly to make a real impact on carbon reduction, the launch in Stellenbosch has proven to be a useful testing ground.
“We started out with an admittedly ambitious plan, to see what merchants’ and people’s responses would be, and we’ve seen a wonderful response from the community, particularly from younger people,” says Rowett. “I think business owners are also considering their business in terms of climate action; it gives them a way of signalling to their clients that they are climate aware and climate positive.”
With the lessons learned in Stellenbosch, the ambitious plan is to expand TOCOs across South Africa and then abroad. “We’ve always felt that this solution would really appeal to European and US markets. We want to expand from city to city around the world,” says Rowett. “We’re trying to create a solution to climate change that everyone can participate in. If you use money, you can be part of a climate solution.”


The return of the Cape Wine expo in 2022 was hailed as a resounding success for the local industry. And while it may have gone unnoticed by many attendees swirling and sipping their way through the Cape Town International Convention Centre, the world-class appearance of the expo was thanks largely to a sustainability-focused manufacturing company on the outskirts of the Stellenbosch Winelands.

Blackheath-based Xanita solves a problem that often hides in plain sight. For creating everything from exhibition stands to retail fittings, much of the world turns to ‘MDF’ (medium-density fibreboard), often known as Supawood. It’s made from fine wood fibres bound together with resin adhesive, and billions of square metres of it are used worldwide each year. But, after use MDF cannot be recycled and often ends up in landfill.

While expo stands and retail fittings are often fashioned from resource-intensive timber and steel, XANITA’s sustainable fibreboard products allow for myriad applications across industries.

In founding Xanita in late 2008, James Beattie hoped to change that, creating an alternative fibreboard that is suitable for applications ranging from expo stands to retail installations and structural cladding. The difference? It’s all made out of waste paper and entirely compostable.

“Our product takes post-consumer waste paper that is widely collected and pulped and creates a fibreboard product that is flexible – it’s stackable, it’s foldable and it’s weight-bearing,” says Beattie. “And when it’s finished, it goes back into the repulping process and ends up back in the waste-paper industry. When we were starting out there were a number of forks in the road and we had choices to make, but what always governed our thinking was the fact that it needed to be truly repulpable.”

That commitment to sustainability extends to the printing that brings each board to life, with Xanita using UV-based inks that are instant-drying and solvent-free, which means they don’t impact the circular flow of being recyclable.

Because while the transformation of waste paper into a fibreboard product that’s strong, multi-faceted and recyclable is certainly remarkable, Beattie is most passionate about the endless applications that Xanita’s two core products – Xanita Print and Xanita Kraft – have to offer.

XANITA’s sustainable fibreboard products allow for myriad applications across industries.

At the manufacturing facility in Blackheath, the pioneering product is combined with an on-site digital studio of industrial designers who push the boundaries of application from retail installations to the global exhibition industry. That creativity was on full display at Cape Wine 2022.

“The big advantage for exhibitions is that there is no sawing or painting done on site,” says Beattie. “It can all be engineered, printed and flat-packed – everything is done flat-pack – off-site and sent anywhere in the world. You put it all together on site like a Meccano set. And, when it’s all done, it’s repulped and the raw material can be used again.”

A truly circular innovation saving the planet one sheet at a time. V