Few man-made things can be seen from 50 kilometers above the Earth: the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, parts of the Great Wall of China, not much else. But if a nonprofit in South Africa has its way, in a few years that country’s flag will join the short list.

The giant flag — the size of 66 football fields — will be made up of 2.5 million desert succulents (thick plants, including cactus, that store water and are suited to arid climates) in red, green, blue and yellow.

The idea had its start at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. South Africans of all backgrounds held up the flag, said Guy Lieberman, head of green and social new business development for advertising agency FCB South Africa. “Our flag really blossomed,” Lieberman said. He had the idea to build on that national pride with something big. In 2015, the Giant Flag project was named one of CNN’s “10 Ideas to Change the World.”

For the Camdeboo region of South Africa, a desert located between Johannesburg and Cape Town, the flag will be more than a curiosity. The plants will scrub 87,300 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, according to the nonprofit. The black portion of the flag will be a 4-megawatt solar field atop commercial buildings, including a hotel and conference center.

Unemployment in the Camdeboo has been around 40 percent, and the majority of the unemployed are  women. Most of the jobs are in sheep and ostrich farming. The Giant Flag project hopes to ease economic hardship “not by starting this fantastic charity,” said Lieberman, but through what he calls “compassionate capitalism.”

Soccer fans wave South African flags at the 2010 World Cup. (© AP Images)
The Giant Flag was inspired by the national unity the South African flag represented at the 2010 World Cup. (© AP Images)

Giant Flag expects that the construction, planting and upkeep of the flag will create more than 700 jobs for the local indigenous peoples. They’ve pledged that 60 percent of those hires will be women. So far, the land for the project has been secured and the zoning and business plan have been approved. The entire project is slated to cost $11 million.

A crowdfunding campaign offers anyone the chance to adopt a plant or a solar panel. Lieberman is also drumming up interest from corporations; the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Google and Toyota are among the project’s early supporters. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs is also lending its support. The project plans to sell solar energy and says profits will pay for scholarships to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and for school improvements and microloans in the region.

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