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Biofuel From Castor Oil: How Thabang Mabapa is Helping Farmers

A chance discovery of castor seeds while walking home from church is behind what might be a groundbreaking idea of creating biofuel from castor seed.

Thabang Mabapa is a self-confessed curious social entrepreneur who might just have a viable alternative to the country’s current fuel price crisis, the Johannesburg-based City Press reported.

He makes biofuel from castor oil extracted from castor trees and its growing demand is proving to be a disruptor in the commercial farming community.

“I was on my way to church and a friend of mine gave me tree spikes to throw away. I didn’t know what they were at the time. I put them in my bag but when I got home I got curious and started crushing them and I found the seeds inside,” Mabapa told City Press of the life-changing encounter in 2013.

Mabapa started researching the seeds and approached academics. The first to respond was Wits University.

“I found out they have castor oil content and I approached Dr. Nkazi — who is now my technical mentor — and he told me I should extract the oil myself so that he could see I was serious. He just said I must be innovative and find a way.”

Dr. Diakanua Nkazi is a senior lecturer in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at Wits.

Frustrated by lacking the scientific know-how of extraction, Mabapa headed to his mother’s kitchen, boiled the seeds and crushed them with a spoon.

After handing over the unrefined oil to Nkazi, he visited his relatives in Limpopo.

“I bumped into an old man who saw me holding the seeds. He asked me what I was doing with the seeds since they are not grown in the country any more and the company that used to grow them closed down in the 1970s.

“I explained to him that I was considering growing them. So we approached the chief who gave us two hectares of land on which to grow the seeds.

“Luckily Ntate Phiri, who used to work at the farms before they closed down, knows how to grow them well so he showed me,” he says.

Mabapa admits that, at the time, what he had in mind was mere castor oil which would still be a commercially viable product.

When he returned to Wits, Nkazi asked him what he wanted to do with the oil and encouraged him to look at alternative uses.

“So I did some research and found that we can also use the castor oil as feed stock,” he said.

During that period, though he was still enrolled as a PR and communications student at the University of Johannesburg, he spent a lot of time at the laboratory at Wits.

“I just focused on biofuel and that is my project, nothing else, and over time our product line expanded to biojet fuel and biogasoline and all this time we got more land for castor seed farming in North West, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape,” he says.

By the end of 2015, he had fully tested the oil and diesel and was open for business to the public.

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