Name: Thabang Mabapa
Business: Selokong Sa Dimelana
Tel: 083 212 1051
Location: Muila, Limpopo
What is SSD all about?
Selokong Sa Dimelana (SSD) is an organisation that farms castor seeds and processes them to castor oil, castor cake and biodiesel. Our business is in the agricultural sector yet plays a role in a number of industries including energy.
As a PR graduate and Chemical Engineer, what role would you say your academic background has played in your success?
My academic background has played a role in terms of conducting research for the market, and our products.
How would you define your uniqueness and relevance in the Energy Industry?
Biodiesel is an alternative fuel similar to fossil diesel but it is cleaner and renewable. Castor oil as biodiesel decreases carbon emissions by upto 74%. The main benefit for biodiesel production or extraction from castor oil is that it is carbon neutral, meaning that the fuel produces no net output of carbon dioxide because when the oil crop grows, it absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide as it releases when the fuel is combusted. Also, the lubricating properties of biodiesel may lengthen the lifespan of engines.
When and how did you start your company and what have been some of your greatest challenges in scaling up?
It all started in 2012 when I volunteered to clean my local community church in Muila, Limpopo. Whilst cleaning the property, a friend of mine handed me some spiky fruit like capsules from a nearby tree shrub to throw away. I was intrigued by the plant so instead of throwing it away i decided to take it home to dig up more on the oddly shaped shoot. When I got home I crushed the capsules and found these attractive brown seeds inside. Out of curiosity I did research on the seeds and found out what they could produce. I found out they were castor seeds. These are natural seeds with high levels of oil content, about 40%-60%. After gathering some research, I went on to approach a university professor who specializes in chemical engineering to learn more on how to extract the oil from the seeds. The intention developed into a case study to produce castor oil as a feedstock for biodiesel and other oil-based products. In 2013 I presented a broader business plan to the chief of Muila village to support us in farming castor seeds to enable a production and processing operation. He gave me access to land and as a business, we have since scaled to other rural areas across South Africa. We collaborate with small scale farmers through contract farming, where we supply farmers with castor cake (organic fertiliser) for free in exchange for the farmer dedicating one or more hectares of land to castor seed farming – and then we buy castor seeds from them.
The challenge in scaling the business has been on negotiating pricing terms on castor oil and biodiesel with bulk buyers.
What changes have you made to the business to enable your growth?
As explained before, we have redefined our business model to enable collaboration between SSD and small scale farmers, emerging farmers and emerging distributors of castor oil. Creating a value chain around people who stay in rural areas has resulted in the growth of the company. It also has a positive impact on social upliftment.
You have been dubbed as one of Red Bull Amaphiko’s most inspiring social entrepreneurs. How has the experience shaped your entrepreneurial journey?
The business has had its fair share of harships. As an entrepreneur, I think it is crucial to know where to turn to in order to locate the right resources. Sometimes it could just be inspiration that you need or a pep-talk. Red Bull Amaphiko Academy has assisted me a lot and contributed to my growth through financial and non-financial support. The Amaphiko programme helped customise my journey as an entrepreneur and for SSD to be a sustainable organisation. They have enabled me to drive business profit while making a positive environmental impact in rural areas across South Africa. I have been with the academy since 2015 and have been amazed at the pool of entrepreneurs it attracts. Through Red Bull Amaphiko, I‘ve been able to network with other entrepreneurs and learn from them; this has helped me assess my entrepreneurial potential and has also created meaningful collaborations.
Who has been most supportive of your work?
People from rural areas where we operate have been incredibly supportive of our projects. My golden team; Dr Diakanua Nkazi who is a senior lecturer and researcher at Wits University; Red Bull Amaphiko and Sun International have been encouraging through-out.
Tell us more about your current project and ultimate goal?
Through collaboration with village communities, we have managed to employ 26 people and have trained six emerging farmers for castor seed farming; they are supplying SSD with castor seeds. We have also managed to engage with Territorial Councils in the villages in which we operate to distribute land to community members for castor seed farming. It’s a huge deal granted our current land debate as a nation. Our ambition for the next five years is to redefine our operational business model to maximise its position and role within the rural economy. We shouldn’t miss the importance of building a community-oriented business.
What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who would like to get into Energy Farming as an industry?
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to start where you are with the little that you have. Never be afraid to ask for financial or non-financial assistance, and always be open to learning from others. More entrepreneurs should apply for programs such as the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy to help up-skill themselves and gain more knowledge on business. Small Business programmes or incubators are an opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs and to discover synergies and possible collaborations. More importantly such platforms can give access to procurement networks.