During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a young entrepreneur from a remote village in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa launched an innovative business turning invasive black wattle into charcoal - a classic win-win for local people and the environment.
Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) was introduced into South Africa from Australia around 1880 for livestock shelter and for firewood, and is still grown commercially today for pulp and the tannin extract industry. The problem is that black wattle produces prolific amounts of seed which has invaded many parts of the country not suitable for commercial timber, including the grasslands around Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, consuming groundwater and reducing grazing range for cattle.
Atang Justice Ramabele (29) was inspired to find a solution to the problem of invasive wattle that would also serve to alleviate some of the challenges faced by the local rural community, namely dwindling access to grazing range and widespread unemployment.
The idea for Morumotsho Charcoal Production came about during Ramabele’s year-long internship with Fetola, an NGO that focuses on finding environmental and rural solutions. The business name translates to “a black forest” in Sesotho, referring to a hillside near eNkasele village where he lives which is overridden with invasive black wattle.
Atang employs seven local people to cut down the rapidly spreading wattle trees of all sizes with chainsaws and to saw it up into 15 cm chunks. It is left to air dry for six weeks before being loaded into the kilns where it is set alight under low oxygen conditions. After a six-hour burn the wood chunks turn into high quality charcoal.
Once they have cut the trees down, the Morumotsho team treats the stumps with a chemical herbicide which ensures that they do not grow back. Thus they are gradually removing the alien wattle from the hillside, and the grass is coming back, much to the delight of the local livestock owners.
This approach seems to be counter-intuitive: what happens to the business when all the alien wattle has been removed from the hillside?
There’s no chance of that, says Atang. He reckons that there is enough wattle growing around the village to keep his kilns stocked for between seven to 10 years. Then he’ll just move somewhere else – there is plenty of alien black wattle growing all over the Eastern Cape.
He has five metal kilns and produces 120 to 150 kgs of charcoal per kiln with each burn. The charcoal produced is sold in three grades: Gold, Silver and First Grade.
Atang and his team package the charcoal under their own brand name, Morumotsho Charcoal, which they sell locally to street vendors, caterers and shebeens. They also sell bulk charcoal to a neighbouring landowner who on-sells it, as well as to E&C Charcoal, a big, established business that manufactures and exports charcoal. Atang has also recently secured a market for Morumotsho Charcoal in nearby Lesotho.
The biggest challenge facing the business now is to increase production to meet the growing demand for the product. The poor state of the local roads makes logistics an on-going challenge, and deliveries are often made by donkey cart or tractor.
“Seeing the change and impact in our society because of my vision makes me proud,” says Atang. “Now people can farm and feed themselves again because the land has been restored, and their animals have better grazing land.”
He says that local cattle owners have been receiving better prices for their animals at the auction thanks to the improved access to good grazing land.
Atang is already thinking ahead to expand his product range with other charcoal-based products like briquettes and bio-char.
“I’ve had opportunities come my way, and I’ve been able to network, learn new things and have experiences that make this a joyful journey,” he concluded.
Fetola is a provider of entrepreneurial support programmes that deliver lasting social, environmental and economic impact. Their goal is to grow the economy, create inclusive wealth and generate jobs by helping people build businesses that last. This is achieved by providing proven business strategy, systems and support, while unlocking the personal leadership power of entrepreneurs like Atang.
Fetola means “change” in Sesotho. The Fetola team is inspired by UN Global goal 17 to generate change at a global scale and foster partnerships that are a force for good. For more info visit https://fetola.co.za/.