"Some days I just wouldn't eat," says Rekai Mapenda. "I would stand by the robots and ask for work, it was very bad."
A painter by trade, 40-year-old Zimbabwean native Rekai got his arm broken in three places when a group of mobsters ambushed him and stole his phone in an informal settlement in Cape Town. His livelihood was stolen along with his mobile, leaving him without an income.
Separated from his wife and son who moved to Johannesburg for her work, their family was broken up.
But his luck changed when he came in contact with Peter Shrimpton, one of the co-founders of Heart Capital, a company that invests in high growth social enterprises, addressing critical social and environmental problems. Like climate change.
READ: How SA airports (and some spekboom) are fighting long-haul 'flight shame'
"I can always tell you whether a horse has been a race horse or not. It's in their eyes," says Peter.
"The same with people, I can recognise the light in someone. Rekai has that X-factor."
Running The Great Labyrinth Project, Peter who has a passion to lift people out of poverty and preserve the environment, comes from a trading background in the stock market. He says that in the past he was driven by money and power. But after being diagnosed with cancer at the young age of 33, he realised his life had to change. He wanted to make it better, not just for himself, his family and children, but for everyone.
The plan is to grow over 120 000 Spekboom trees that will be used to create The Great Labyrinth of Africa in Stellenbosch, situated on the Stellenbosch Bridge Smart City development. It will comprise of 563 lanes of Spekboom hedging.
Empowering five 'Tree-preneurs' through Wonder Plant's entrepreneur development program, Peter says each grower takes responsibility for, and owns 25 000 Spekboom trees that will, ultimately, form part of the labyrinth.
The project essentially gives disadvantaged individuals the tools and the opportunity to cultivate a sustainable livelihood by running their own small scale Spekboom nursery.
"They are like my babies," says Rekai of his 25 000 Spekboom trees.
Before becoming part of this project, Rekai didn't know what Spekboom was, or that it was, in fact, a 'wonder plant' that has the ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - i.e. one hectare of Spekboom can remove approximately between four and ten tonnes of carbon per annum.
The plant is so multifaceted that eating only 6 leaves a day can give you all the Vitamin C you need for that day.
But you can also get involved. The plan is to get as many people involved in this project as possible, to come out and help them plant the trees every Saturday. They are hoping to officially have the labyrinth, designed by labyrinth guru Terry de Vries, completed and open to the public by end of April 2020. (Check out their Facebook page and sign up for their volunteer days!)
Once completed, the labyrinth will allow you to walk a peaceful 5km in and 5km out (maybe the next park run/walk venue?). There will be a small entrance fee, but you get your very own Spekboom tree when you leave.
"The labyrinth encourages us to continue the cycle, to be mindful that we need to pass on the message that we need to act, not just to benefit ourselves, but to benefit generations going forward," says Peter.
Rekai says that the project has given him so much. He now has the ability to save for his future, to buy his own house and he has since been reunited with his wife, where they all now live in Stellenbosch.
He says that planting Spekboom has not only made his life better, or the life of his family better, but now he know it will make life better for everyone.
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