CAPE TOWN - Soweto-born Thabang Mabapa who uses science to extract oil from castor oil seeds says that his project has the ability to replace fossil fuel and help to save South Africa’s energy crisis.
The 26-year old entrepreneur who holds a Public Relations qualification from the University of Johannesburg said that he has always been open to learning new things and working with people.
Mabapa first became interested in energy when he volunteered at his community church in 2012. “It all began when I volunteered at our community church. A friend of mine gave me tree spikes to throw away, and instead of throwing them away, I put them in my bag as I didn’t know what they were at the time. When I got home I crushed the spikes and found these attractive brown seeds inside”, said Mabapa.
He then discovered that these seeds were castor seeds which are high in oil content. Mabapa said he approached a chemical engineering professor who assisted him in extracting oil from the seeds.
Eventually, Mabapa’s pure curiosity spurred into a fully-fledged business. With a mere R500 in his pocket, he then registered his own company, Selokong Sa Dimelana (SSD) which farms castor seeds and processes them to become castor oil and biodiesel.
“I had R500 to register the company and started collecting seeds from the tree at the local church, and then I’d extract the oil using home utensils. I never received financial assistance when I was starting out”, said Mabapa.
SSD was founded and secured 1000 hectares of land for castor seed farming. SSD uses marginal land to farm the seeds and sell their biodiesel mainly to farmers. “We also sell cold-pressed castor oil, as consumers use it mostly for cosmetic application, which helps us keep our biodiesel business sustainable”, added Mabapa.
Mabapa said that during that same year, an agronomist did soil tests as the crop requires loamy soil of medium texture. They discovered that castor beans do well on either alkaline or acid soils, as long as the subsoil is permeable and there is good drainage.
Picture: The machine SSD uses to extract the oil. (Supplied).
Two years later, SSD which now employs 24 full-time employees, grew hybrid castor beans using seeds from SA and India in Muila village, Limpopo province.
According to Mabapa, the pilot-test demonstrated that hybrid castor bean is well adapted to South African soil.
Further research was conducted on castor oil as feedstock for bio-products in 2015 when SSD partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
“The organisation conducted further research on castor oil as feedstock for bio-products and discovered potential patent. We also extracted castor oil mechanically and sold it informally. Red Bull Amaphiko Academy supported us financially and non-financially during an 18-month program with them”, said Mabapa.
SSD has since been recognised internationally and won the Spark International (South Africa) ‘Changemaker’ of the year award in 2016. The start-up was also selected as one of the top 10 starts-ups in South Africa by Total. SSD then went on to win the Old Mutual Business Pitch Competition last year.
The sustainability of castor oil has been recognised by several companies. Round Table on Biomaterials (RSB), a company that drives the development of the bioeconomy through sustainable solutions and collaborative partnerships has partnered with SSD to gain market access for the start-up. Notably, RSB is currently in collaboration with WWF, SAA, and the Boeing Company to assess the potential for aviation biofuel production in South Africa.
“Selokong Sa Dimelana also partnered with Isivuno Ex, a company that focuses on the marketing, selling, and distribution of bio-products”, adds Mabapa.
This year, SSD has bought commercial equipment to produce castor oil and biodiesel in larger volumes. They have changed their strategy from selling oil to end user consumers to selling it to cosmetic companies, oil companies, and distributors.
“We have also developed 250 hectares of land for this season, which will produce 280 tonnes of castor oil”, adds Mapaba.
The biofuel producer and entrepreneur said that the current energy crisis in SA can be solved by using a combination of sources of energy and SSD’s solution, biodiesel from castor oil. He added that it can also contribute to the current crisis by reducing the dependence on fossil fuel.