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Young South African on starting his castor oil and biodiesel business

Thabang Mabapa (25) recently won R100,000 ($7,900) in funding from the Old Mutual Foundation to expand his castor oil and biodiesel business.

In 2012, Soweto-born Thabang Mabapa was helping to clean up a local community church when he stumbled upon curious-looking twigs in the garden. He was intrigued by their thorny dried pods, and decided to take them home.

“I didn’t throw them away, I don’t know why,” he told How we made it in Africa. “When I got home, I crushed the spikes, out of boredom, and I found these brown seeds inside.”

A simple Google search and Mabapa discovered he was holding Ricinus communis beans, more commonly known as castor-oil seeds. From his research, he learnt he could extract castor oil from them, which he managed to do in his mother’s kitchen with her pots and cooking utensils. He also read that castor oil (used for medicinal purposes) could be produced into biodiesel – something that instantly sparked his interest. But to do this he needed to grow more seeds – and for that he required land.

“That was when I visited my family in Muila Village in Limpopo Province. I approached the chief and presented the idea to him. I showed him how [growing castor-oil seeds] could benefit the village and how many jobs it could create… He started off by giving me a small piece of land, to prove that I was actually dedicated to the project. And, once we managed to grow the seeds on this land, he gave us more land. Now we are actually sitting on land the size of a small town.”

In 2013 Mabapa launched his company, Selokong Sa Dimelana, while completing his diploma in public relations and communications at the University of Johannesburg. He spent the next two years producing castor oil, expanding the farm and researching biofuel production techniques.

“But we realised it would be hard for us to produce [biodiesel] alone, and for people to actually believe in us… I had to make sure that the company puts itself in a strategic position where it could extract credible oil, that was refined and actually what a customer needs,” he recalled.

“That was when it came to me that maybe we should approach research and learning institutions because they have the resources, the human capital – and I have nothing to lose. I thought the worst thing I could get was a ‘no’.”

Mabapa started speaking to a professor and expert in biofuels at the University of the Witwatersrand who agreed to help. The university arranged to provide him with a lab to process castor oil into biodiesel. He was also selected to join the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy in 2015, a collaborative platform for social entrepreneurs.

Today the company has 15 employees and 64 volunteers – who produce and sell castor oil and biodiesel. According to Mabapa, castor oil fetches a higher price than biodiesel, which is still relatively new in the market. Most of the castor oil is sold to large wholesalers, while the biodiesel is targeted at farmers looking to power tractors and machinery. It is sold at a competitive price of around R8.50 (US$0.70) per litre – compared to the current diesel price of around R11.50 ($0.90).

Mabapa has also just received R100,000 ($7,900) in funding from Old Mutual Foundation, which he plans to use to buy farming equipment and expand production. “The first people I told were my mother and uncle,” he added.

“They were really happy. They had always said I shouldn’t give up during those times I faced difficulties.”

His advice to other aspiring agriculture entrepreneurs is to never be afraid to ask because “asking is a process of learning”.

“And I would say try to team up with people who know about [agriculture], even if they aren’t involved in the business side. I started by spending a lot of time with farm workers – they have a lot of insight into agriculture… The insight that they have about the industry has helped us get to where we are today.”

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