A Green Future That Talks Back


Somewhere at the intersection of eco-centred living, artificial intelligence (AI) and cosy hospitality, lies theLAB Guesthouses where Lauren McShane discovers that her voice CAN control light and sound, and make coffee from bed.

By: Lauren Manuel

Echo, make coffee,” I murmur from beneath the duvet in my room at theLAB Guesthouse in Franschhoek. “Cooking is beyond me at the moment, but I can pass on some recipes to you if you’d like”, replies my voice-activated room assistant. “Echo!”, the rainbow-coloured lights around her buzz as she receives the sounds of my voice. “Make coffee!”, I shout just to get my message across. Either she can’t detect my accent or, like me, she’s off to a slow start this morning.

Lifting my head off the pillow I resort to plan B; performing the arduous task of pressing the start button on the coffee maker right beside the bed. I close my eyes again, smiling as espresso drips into a cup. I decide it’s high time my voice
holds the power to make coffee.

Photo: jaredincpt
Photo: jaredincpt

Green Tech and AI

At theLAB guesthouse, coffee isn’t the only thing to materialise upon voice command. I’ve opened the blinds, switched off lights and selected music from my bed. TheLAB refers to ‘the LivinAfrica Box’, the centre of my room automation. Through a combination of high-tech automation and green hotel functions, guests can control various functions through voice, buttons and switches, still quite a novel concept in the guesthouse industry.

It turns out that Western Cape-based Dutch entrepreneur, Jos Balk, started these guesthouses as a proof of concept and
to showcase how seamlessly AI, state-of-the-art technology and ‘green’ can fit hand-in-hand in the hospitality industry
and beyond. With his IT and automation background, Jos has always loved Franschhoek and launched this guesthouse
along with two more properties in Cape Town and Robertson.

When it comes to global cities, Cape Town is the perfect environment for this kind of showcase and according to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Cape Town has been ranked among the top five cities in the world that measures and discloses climate data.

“Going green in South Africa is a challenge and I’m not afraid of a challenge”, smiles Jos. “Renewables in South Africa will give us a lot of extra yield and provide a big benefit for the problems we face here. So, while it’s challenging, if we can get there, it can grow quick and fast.”

While I wait for my e-scooter to finish charging, I ask Echo for one more song request. “Bruno Mars”, I instruct in the direction of her glowing centre. “I cannot get you to Mars right now, but I’m sure I could assist you with something else.” Chuckling, I leave my room and hop onto my e-scooter along with a group of three other guests and we zoom through picturesque Franschhoek with the lowest possible carbon footprint.

Photo: jaredincpt
Photo: jaredincpt

Sustainable Travel On The Rise

Saving the planet, long-term savings and changing desires of travellers have begun to spur hotels and guesthouses like
theLAB to keep progressing with their green offerings. When it comes to eco-friendly accommodation and experiences more travellers have begun to seek out and choose more sustainable options.

TripAdvisor has created their own ranking system, the GreenLeaders Program, which recognises hotels and B&Bs that engage in environmentally friendly practices. According to a TripAdvisor survey amongst American guests, 50% made eco-friendly travel choices in the past 12 months and 61% plan to do so next year; 74% agree that a property’s eco-friendly practices are important when booking their stay.

But even with all the reasons to go green, most hotel owners still need convincing as it needs to enhance the bottom line of a business and not detract from the profits. According to www.hydrofinity.com, green efforts, more often than not, save hotels money in the long term.

And many green technologies can actually become self-funding by reducing a hotel’s operating costs. Water-saving laundry systems, solar panels and automated systems that shut off electronic devices in a room when there are no guests present are all examples of green technologies which help conserve energy costs.

Photo: jaredincpt
Photo: jaredincpt

Start With Yourself

So, if going green makes a profit, what stops the hospitality industry? Jos says, “Financially it is very attractive to do something as there is an immediate saving on your operational costs. You don’t only have to be green, you can see it as the colour of money. It’s also very attractive because hotels are quite big consumers of energy. I’m not sure what stops us. Maybe it’s because we still think that because it’s technology-based, it must be difficult. But going green really isn’t hard to do.”

Before I know it my time in Franschhoek has ended. I’ve enjoyed a cinema experience, a Holden Manz wine tasting, dinner beside the pool and an evening in the eco-jacuzzi. The next day I find myself in a forest cabin at theLAB Guesthouse in Hout Bay enjoying a back massage before instructing Echo to close the blinds as I gear down for a nap.

Hotels aside, what can we as individuals do to become more eco-centred? Jos encourages each of us to consider our finances and analyse the costs. “Then see where you can make it better. Don’t think that it’s difficult … for example during Cape Town’s drought, when our water usage declined so drastically we started to save and save because we thought we were running out. The mentality is there, so start with yourself.”

As night falls and my time at theLAB draws to a close, I can only hope that someday my voice will wield power over light, sound, water and a coffee machine in my smart home powered only by the sun.

The Essentials

Weekend mountain bike enthusiasts make Franschhoek their destination of choice. The Berg River damoffers both hiking and mountain biking trails with spectacular views. A day permit costs R50 per person and can be booked at franschhoektourism.activitar.com

The Babylonstoren garden is at the heart of the Babylonstoren farm. It was inspired by the Company Gardens of the Cape, where for centuries ships would replenish with sweet water, vegetables and fruit at the halfway station between Europe and Asia.

It also hales back to the mythical garden of Babylon. Every one of over 300 varieties of plants in the garden is edible and fruit and veg are harvested year round for use in their restaurant. Join their daily garden tour at 10am each day. Bookings essential via enquiries@babylonstoren.com or +27 (0)21 863 3852.

See the Franschhoek Valley as you journey through rolling vineyards in a double-decker tram and open-air tram-bus stopping at some of South Africa’s oldest and most distinguished wine estates. This combination of tram and bus transports passengers around a loop of stops allowing you to hop off and experience activities like wine tastings, cellar tours, lunch or simply a stroll through the vineyards. www.winetram.co.za

Rent a car or use a ride-hailing app to make your way from Cape Town International airport to Franschoek.

FLY SAA flies daily between Johannesburg and Cape Town and offers daily code-share flights between
Durban and Cape Town operated by Mango Airlines. Visit flysaa.com

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