There is a well-acknowledged communication or knowledge gap between scientists and decision-makers. Many scientists who take on the challenge of narrowing this gap operate on the understanding that their role is to communicate their findings in a one-way flow of information: from science to decision-makers. However, to be effective scientists must engage in an ongoing social learning process with decision-makers, and regard themselves as facilitators, and also as one among many stakeholders who have valid and important ecological knowledge. The developing world poses some particular challenges in this regard, specifically in terms of the large number of local level subsistence resources users who are important de facto decision-makers. We examine four natural resource management case studies from South Africa that differ in spatial scale and complexity, ranging from a single village to a whole biome. We distil seven lessons to help guide development of social learning processes and organizations in similar situations relating to natural resource planning and management. The lessons pertain to: maintaining ‘key individuals’ within social learning processes; the role of researchers; the formulation of research questions that social learning processes require adaptive long-term funding and capacity support; that local resource users are key decision-makers in developing countries; some perspectives on knowledge; and the need to measure research success.