An internship experience with Greenpop in Cape Town

If you’re looking for an environmental science internship abroad, make sure to check out South Africa as a destination – not just because it’s an incredible place, but also because there’s some innovative and exciting work happening in the fields of urban greening, reforestation, alternative energy sources, and food security. One organisation that works in these fields is Greenpop, a Cape Town based NGO that has been running a variety of environmental programs in Southern Africa for over a decade. They’ve also been hosting interns for many years, and were recently joined by Brandon O’Neill, who was keen to gain some professional experience working with the indigenous fynbos vegetation in Cape Town. Not long after he started his internship, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Brandon to work from home, but he still managed to have a rich experience – and add huge value to Greenpop. 

Reasons for doing an Environmental Science Internship with an NGO in Cape Town 

What mostly drew Brandon to Greenpop was the organisation’s focus on fynbos, an indigenous hard-leaved shrub that thrives in nutrient-poor soil, making it uniquely suitable vegetation for the dry township areas around Cape Town. As part of a larger urban greening program, Greenpop plans fynbos around schools in underprivileged communities. This increases biodiversity, beautifies barren spaces, and encourages environmental stewardship amongst school kids. 

During his first few weeks with Greenpop, on the ground in Cape Town, Brandon spent most of his time working at the organisation’s ‘Eco-Education Hub,’ a plant and tree nursery and educational space that showcases sustainable living techniques. Tasks for interns include planting, propagating, and assisting with the overall management and development of the space. 

“I learnt about fynbos and the environment,” says Brandon. “I have a background in agriculture, but I was so happy to learn about how environmental organisations run themselves and be a part of one of those organisations where we can directly see their impacts.” 

Making an environmental internship work remotely 

When South Africa enforced a lockdown in response to COVID-19, Brandon had to go home to Johannesburg and continue his internship remotely. While it wasn’t ideal for an internship that was supposed to be very field-based, he managed to take on – and skilfully execute – a great variety of tasks.

“His next task was to create quizzes for primary and high school learners using the Fynbos for the Future course material, which will be used to test the comprehension and knowledge retention of the learners after every eco-educational workshop,” explains Deon Knoetze, Greenpop’s Urban Greening Program Manager. “When we were looking into starting to sell plants, Brandon did research into different ways one could package plants and seedlings, and worked out the costs of the various materials involved. And when we started looking into venturing into building food gardens, he looked at various ways in which we could achieve this.” 

“For fun, Brandon did research on multiple topic which he shared with the team: the pros and cons of permaculture, realities of GMOs, monoculture, industrial agriculture, and pesticides. His background in agriculture meant that he had valuable insights on these topics, which provided a healthy counterpoint to the negative views on these we mostly encounter in the environmental sector.”

Making your mark on your host organisation as an intern 

While the lockdown restricted Brandon with the field-work he was hoping to do, it did allow him to stretch himself to other areas, and he ended up assisting Greenpop in a number of departments, as Deon explains. “He made a mammoth contribution with project and development document related to one of Greenpop’s biggest projects, the Platbos Reforestation Project, which forms part of our Forests for Life programme. On top of this, he had a big involvement in summarising the Fynbos Corridor Collaboration’s Strategy for Greening Cape Town document, which will ensure the layman is also able to utilise it in our collective effort to conserve the magnificent natural heritage of Cape Town.” 

“His pièce de résistance, however, was the comprehensive, albeit accessible, guide he produced on asexual propagation. This document will be invaluable in ensuring successful propagation of many of the species we use in Fynbos for the Future which, in turn, will mean that we needn’t purchase the plants we use in the project in the future.” 

“I was thankful for the trust that was put upon me and how I was treated as a member of the team and not just and intern,” says Brandon. “I enjoyed working on the project development document as I was told it would be used to procure funds to rehabilitate land in the future. I have definitely made my mark.” 

The happy offshoots of interning with an environmental NGO 

What drives us at Roots, is the lasting impact our nonprofit internships make on both the interns and the organisations. Brandon’s internship with Greenpop is a prime example of this; despite the challenges of doing what should have been a very practical internship remotely, Brandon’s involvement added great value to Greenpop’s projects, and it helped define his career goals at the same time. 

“This internship helped me understand there are good people making a practical difference to help our world,” says Brandon. “I learnt that I would LOVE, absolutely LOVE to work for Greenpop or a similar company in the future. I also learnt a lot about plants and fynbos which was my intention and I am grateful for that. I want to incorporate fynbos into my agricultural future one day and this has definitely helped me stay on path towards my end goals.” 

Finding the right environmental science internship in South Africa

If you’re looking for an environmental internship, either on the ground in Cape Town or remotely, here are some opportunities: 

“I highly recommend these internships as I feel it is a good way to get to know how South Africans work and interact,” says Brandon. “You will leave wanting more and be happy that you were a part of the experience.”