Meet Val Thomas – Innovator Behind The Tree App

As more people become aware of the environment and humans’ impact on it, there is a burgeoning group of South Africans who want to know which trees are growing in various areas across the country, not only by name but by the countless jewels of information that make each species unique.

Over the past six years, innovator and project leader Val Thomas and a team of highly skilled and diverse professionals have been creating what has been called by some reviewers “the Google of tree search engines”. Named TheTreeApp, South Africa, it can be used on any smart phone or tablet under 3 years old. It enables users to search for specific trees; or to get an idea of what trees are growing in the region they happen to be in – including (for example) which of the trees are endangered and how many trees are poisonous or have yellow or pink flowers – with a series of simple screen touches.

  • What are you most passionate about?

My family. South Africa and its wild places. Trees all round the world!

We have 5 children and 12 grandchildren which is a massive blessing in life. They are scattered all round the world. So although our most favourite travel is here in South Africa, the family gives an opportunity to travel to the world’s wild places. Recently we were fortunate enough to find the ONLY ‘tree’ in the Arctic! It is a tiny ground-high Willow Salix Arctica and is a tree because it is woody. OK … A shrub!!

  • What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Trying to make Indigenous trees a cool trend in the modern world and … creating TheTreeApp South Africa.

I became hooked on trees 30 years ago as part of the adventures in a publishing company that my husband and I created – then Jacana Publishing. With Dr. Rina Grant, I co-authored the Sappi Tree Spotting series, which went a little of the way when it came to starting-up Indigenous Tree Lovers … but from then on, I dreamt of a ‘computerised’ Search capability. It was a naïve dream and had we realised the amount of time, the effort, the pain, the cost … yes the risk … I probably would never have gained the confidence of those who funded TheTreeApp, nor the commitment of the dedicated team that stood by the dream for more years, and less pay than they had bargained for!

  • What makes you angry?

Unfairness and greed. These 2 negative human traits ruin relationships, companies, natural eco-systems, countries and our planet.

  • If you inherited an acre of land what would you do with it?

Plant trees!!!! And then more trees – all indigenous and yes … they would be truly indigenous. i.e. I would make sure they were in the right habitat, and soil, and at the right altitude. I would use TheTreeApp South Africa to help me make the choices!

  • Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?

Definitely a gatherer only. I AM a gatherer. Wherever I go I am picking bits of plants to analyse them, enjoy looking at them, record them, eat them! But I never hunt. Who would? Only the hungry surely?

  • How many pairs of shoes  do you own?

Mmm 6 in total. 3 of these are over 5 years old – this does not count hiking/walking boots – 2 more

  • If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?

Duck legs in orange; ice cream & hot choc sauce. I am not a hunter – but then not a vegetarian either. I do try to buy organic when possible as it makes sense on every level. And I am very aware of sustainable and humane farming. I wish I were more dedicated. Maybe now that the work on TheTreeApp has eased, I can be more honest about these beliefs too! It is not only trees that need to be looked after properly and treated with respect.

  • How would people communicate in a perfect world?

With consideration, patience, tolerance and care. Back to greed and unfairness … these 5 are not bedfellows. There IS no absolute right or wrong on anything, and honest, transparent discussion can take us much further in most situations than haggling over prices, rights, ownership and claims.

  • What do you work toward in your free time?

I read and crochet and do Sudoku. I don’t work towards anything else in my free time. I work towards being relaxed occasionally!!

  • If you woke up and had 300 unread emails and could only answer 30 of them, how would you choose which ones to answer?

I would be horrified to find 300 mails!! But in order – Family; TheTreeApp; and then delete all ads. Having said this, I am saddened that WhatsApp et al has taken over from phone calls and visits. TheTreeApp South Africa has just won the MTN Agricultural Award 2017, and I was flooded with congratulatory messages and emoji’s. But my phone and doorbell hardly rang! BUT! I am not complaining! Thank you all for all the good wishes. I am just old fashioned at 75, and love voices more than technology.

  • Name 3 thing in nature you find most beautiful.

I can’t do that. It would be like asking me to choose between my grandchildren. Whichever one I am with at that moment is the best! I feel the same way about wild places.

I give my whole heart and always feel as though I am losing an asset when I leave. But if people want to know the most extraordinary places we have visited in South Africa then, The Kruger is still and always will be our top at number one. Followed by the forests of the Eastern and Western Cape, then of course KZN along with the Richtersveld into Kagalaghadi. As for the rest of the wild world? The Arctic and Antarctic are awesome but there are very few trees! The South American Iguazu waterfall system is a world beater on every level in terms of all visual and life forms. The American National parks are in a world class of their own, but back ‘home’ again – nothing can beat Africa! The Botswana Delta, Namibian deserts and Tanzanian open spaces are definitely heart-winning!

  • Have you used plastic bags for your shopping in the last two weeks?

Definitely NOT. Who does any more? There are such beautiful locally made Shweshwe bags on street corners in Johannesburg. Guess what my family are getting for Christmas this year!?

  • What would you say are some small steps that people can take to improve their relationship to the environment?

Start believing and caring that you can make a difference from NOW. While you don’t believe this you won’t do anything.

Nothing is too small. And nothing is too much. Not even 6 years creating a Tree App!


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