The Oude Molen Eco Village was initiated in 1997 by a small group of social entrepreneurs who over a period of three years transformed an abandoned and vandalised hospital complex into a micro-enterprise village. Hudson McComb is one of the co-founders of the Oude Molen Eco Village. The idea was to address socio-economic challenges in the region while stimultaneously generate income for the custodians of this public asset. Read more about this project and lessons learned of South African social entrepreneur McComb in this interview. 

Interview with Hudson McComb, Co-founder of The Oude Molen Eco Village in Cape Town, South Africa

Hudson trail ride_Hudson McComb

Hudson McComb, Co-founder of the Oude Molen Eco Village

1. Please tell us more about yourself. Where did you grow up, how did you get involved with social entrepreneurship and how did you end up in Cape Town?

I was very fortunate to grow up on a farm near Pietersburg now called Polokwane with two wonderful sisters Moira and Melinda. Farm life involved horse riding and lots of Tom Sawyer type adventure together with farm work; ploughing fields, caring for animals, maintenance of premises, vehicles, water pumps etc. Both my parents were entrepreneurs having owned a farm involving sheep, chicken, cattle and vegetables farming as well a shop and a restaurant in town. My father also practiced as a dentist and my mother a nurse and both assisted many folk in need. In essence both were involved in business and assisting others was a common day-to-day experience.

During my school years I spent a lot of time in our local African township and after school when I was in Johannesburg I spent time in Soweto. The accumulative exposure to the social and economic hardships many African citizens were forced to endure culminated in a desire to contribute towards positive change and make a difference. As a result I decided to study political Science at University.

The University of Cape Town in 1980 was renowned for its progressive political stance and consequently I decided to study at UCT. I chose to pay for my own studies to not only be able to identify with the hardships African students endured but also as a form of rebellion against white privilege. As a result I worked on construction as a casual worker to save money as well as working in orphanages and street children’s shelters for accommodation while attending university.

After establishing and managing the Beth Uriel organisation for several years with a volunteer Angela Legrange after my 2nd year at Varsity and during this time completed my final year I had come to realise that poverty was growing faster than the solutions. This realisation coincided with being nominated for a bursary to complete a Post Graduate Integrated Regional Planning & Urban rural development program in Israel.

On my return in 1997 I was approached to assist Gary Glass set up a vegetable garden project on Oude Molen which at the time was an abandoned hospital complex. The property was ideal for a micro enterprise village and as a result I submitted a proposal to the custodians of the property the Provincial Government, who offered me the opportunity to initiate and manage the micro enterprise village for the 1st four years of its inception. The motivation was to alleviate poverty by pioneering a new and innovative way of maximising the potential of an underutilised public asset by; providing affordable space to emerging small enterprises to create employment opportunities, empower youth, promote urban agriculture and offer a variety of social and recreational activities to surrounding communities and local and international visitors while producing revenue for Provincial.

2. On your LinkedIn profile you state that you have spent in the 1970’s much time in townships. What motivated you to spend time there and how would you summarize your experience? What are the top five lessons learned?

The motivation to spend time in the townships was due to a deep sense of injustice regarding the racial prejudice as well as social and economic hardships many citizens were forced to endure together with my inability to reconcile and support the rhetoric the national government continued to promote to justify the political system. The experience was profound, experiencing generosity, hospitality, honesty, humility, down to earth citizens with no airs and graces willing to share the little they had with one another and or strangers.

3. You have also spent some time in Israel to learn from best practices relating to regional planning and development, strategic intervention and addressing the root causes of poverty. What did you learn during that time and how easy or difficult was it to apply lessons learned to South Africa?

I gained an understanding and appreciation for holistic regional development that has depth and substance, is    authentic and involves long-term strategic thinking, is able to address the root causes of poverty in a cost-effective way and ensures long-term sustainable results benefiting local communities the region and the country as a whole. It has been very difficult to implement lessons learnt in South Africa due to the following reasons.

South Africa’s development approach with regards to addressing poverty and its symptoms; unemployment, crime urban migration, substance abuse, is:

  • Very superficial using development jargon or terminology with no true understanding or appreciation of what holistic integrated development entails and the long-term benefits
  • Driven by politicians or decision makers who due to the 4 year cycle politicians are in office, together they are consumed by the need to use development for short-term quick fix solutions as the means to attract voters. Most projects fail are costly, with no long-term results or benefits and the root causes continue to multiply

4. You manage the Oude Molen Eco Village tenants association. Please tell us a bit more about the tenants, the micro-enterprises based in the Village!

The Village currently hosts 42 small business enterprises that collectively employ approximately 200 people. Enterprises range from backpacker accommodation to music studios, equestrian activities, frail care services, metal, wood, art and craft workshops, public pool and braai facilities, urban agriculture, a restaurant and a school. They include educational, cultural, social and recreational amenities and Non-Profit services for youth all benefiting local communities.

Tenants embody the meaning of – perseverance, tenacity, social entrepreneurship, vision, determination, hard work, proactive citizenship, responsible joint custodianship of public assets, commitment to making a difference, environmentally conscientious intervention. Collectively they desire that the unique location and historical legacy and significance of the property be optimised for the benefit of local and neighbouring communities and the region as a whole, while still complementing all key stakeholders’ aspirations and expectations.

Their efforts to date have insured that the property is still available to create a dynamic local and international tourism destination, for the benefit of future generations.

5. What are your future plans with the Village?

Although proactive citizen involvement transformed a previously abandoned hospital complex into a vibrant micro enterprise village, it has always been understood that the use of the property in its current form is not sustainable and additional development would be required for the property to achieve the socio-economic potential it is capable of offering the region.

As a direct result in 2001 the Oude Molen Eco Village Tenants Association, in partnership with the City of Cape Town Two Rivers Urban Park organisation, researched local and international best practices and conceptualised a future development proposal with the intention to continue transforming the property into Live and Work micro enterprise Eco Village and Public Urban Park with a focus on ensuring financial sustainability, income to Provincial Government and optimising its socio-economic benefits in the region.

The proposed future development aims to organise the initiative as a Social Enterprise so that all profits are used for additional social, economic, environmental and educational development in the region. In addition, an estimated 100 enterprises will actively provide job shadowing and skills development opportunities to 160 unemployed youth per month.

Further, the aim is to optimise the unique location and social and recreational opportunities by ensuring that the village functions as a sustainable neighbourhood and public urban park with an emphasis on bottom up people centred development benefiting local communities.

The proposal aims to position Oude Molen as a catalyst for additional social, economic, environmental and cultural development in the region, grow recognition and support for social enterprise management models, micro-enterprise development and urban agriculture as a more effective way to address socio-economic and environmental challenges.

A collaborative feasibility study undertaken by the Tenants Association together with engineering students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute USA, projected that the proposed future development is able to generate R200 Million in direct income to Provincial Government and distribute R70 Million to Non Profit Organisations in the region over a period of 50 years while providing 500 full-time and 1500 informal employment opportunities per month.

The Oude Molen Eco Village Future Development Proposal was included as an official World Design Capital (WDC) 2014 project affirming the innovative and socially relevant nature of the Village and value adding efforts from proactive tenants.

6. In your view, what are the challenges to start and run a social enterprise, and Social Entrepreneurship in general in South Africa?

Very limited:

  • Start-up funding or venture capital in general and more especially for social enterprise development
  • Premises to rent and operate from with affordable rentals
  • Mentorship support

7. What advice or tips can you give to aspiring (social) entrepreneurs and change-makers?

  • Explore / investigate potential normal commercial and or social enterprises you can collaborate with in order to share core resources such as premises for office, workshop or warehouse space, admin, equipment, transport
  • Focus on an aspect of you bigger picture social enterprise vision that is doable and implement and pursue this aspect while growing the enterprises incrementally based on income and cash flow availability
  • Continually be observant and open to opportunities to partner with other enterprises commercial or social
  • Have a comprehensive budget as a guideline and continually assess ways to minimise unnecessary expenditure
  • Continually learn from successful businesses and adapt and adopt relevant values / principles / goals / processes / approached

8.Lastly, do you have a social enterprise or initiative that inspires you? Why?

Our future development proposal for the continued transformation of the Oude Molen Eco Village property

Why

It provides a new and innovative approach of optimising underutilised public assets in a win-win way while ensuring:

  • a legacy that provides long-term employment opportunities, food security and health social and recreational amenities for local communities and region as a whole
  • youth skills job shadowing opportunities
  • affordable premises and an incubator for social enterprise development
  • profits are redistributed back into society where they are most needed
  • the use of local and international best practices in terms of; urban development, sustainable neighbourhoods, renewable energy and water savings technology, green architecture, multiple bottom line management model,
  • visionary proactive citizenship and joint custodianship of public assets a hybrid eco village that can inspire the replication of the same in other communities locally nationally and internationally

If you want to learn more about the Oude Molen Eco Village, you can follow them Facebook or check out their website:

Oude Molen Eco Village on Facebook Website Oude Molen Eco Village

You can support the Oude Molen Eco Village by volunteering or doing an internship with them – contact Hudson McComb for more details – 083 448 1829 / 021 448 9442 – prodevservices@oudemolenecovillage.co.za. You can also support their efforts financially – contact Dan Neser – 076 33781 102 – omvworkshop@iplus.co.za