Positive environmental actions are celebrated on World Environment Day on June 5. But for South Africa’s Thabang Mabapa, who’s working on turning castor oil into a biodiesel, it’s a daily matter.
An agriculture and energy entrepreneur, Mabapa founded Selokong Sa Dimelana, an organization that focuses on the farming, processing and distribution of castor oil for biodiesel purposes in 2013.
Mabapa (pictured above, far right) identified a global issue and matched it with a local problem: A crude oil crisis with a lack of alternative fuels and rural brain drain. His solution was to develop idle land for castor oil farming by planting castor beans to reduce dependency on oil and create jobs. The beans yield a high oil content of 55% which, when converted to biodiesel, becomes biodegradable and produces significantly lower emissions than fossil fuels. To date, Mabapa has 12 employees and 68 volunteers and fancies himself an eco-entrepreneur.
As is the custom in rural Africa, he found a chief in Limpopo province who was prepared to give him some land, and he got growing. More than 60 local people have got involved as volunteers, tilling the land, planting bushes and harvesting the beans every three months.
Mabapa started out extracting the oils in his mother’s kitchen and is currently using lab facilities at the University of Wits in Johannesburg before working towards his own factory facilities.
“My dream is to do the farming and the processing in Limpopo so that people here can have that skillset,” he says. “I want us to grow, to supply the whole of Africa, and produce tons and tons of biodiesel.”
Mabapa uses marginal land to grow the castor plants, which does not take away from crop-bearing land and pose a threat to food security. The castor cake, a by-product of the biodiesel extraction process and a type of organic manure, is supplied to food producing farmers, ensuring that even waste is put to good use.
Despite the project being primarily in the agricultural sector, it plays a significant role in a number of other industries including energy, medicine and cosmetics – all sectors that rely on crude oil as a basis for manufacturing end-products.
Mabapa has left plenty of room for trial and error as he builds his business. While extracting energy from beans is an exact science, a business plan can sometimes be led by what you discover along the way. “When you’re interested in something and you grow a passion for it, you can’t control how you are going to learn,” he says.