Depending on where you live in South Africa, you may not know of the overgrowth of alien wattle trees in parts of the country. But for the residents of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, this invasive species is the cause of several headaches and impacts on the well-being of many households. However, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Atang Justice Ramabele –aged 29- found a solution that would alleviate some of this rural community’s challenges – all while providing valuable employment opportunities and highlighting the potential of youth entrepreneurship.
Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) invades grasslands, competes with and reduces indigenous species, and diminishes grazing land for animals. Over the years, it has spread across Matatiele, leaving households here struggling with grazing land for their cattle, with reduced access to water sources and vulnerable to criminals who use dense wattle bushes as coverage. But for Ramabele’s business, Morumotsho Charcoal Production, it’s the key ingredient of the startups’s eco-conscious charcoal.
The idea for Morumotsho Charcoal Production came about during Ramabele’s year-long internship with the NGO Environmental and Rural Solutions and inspired him to establish the business in his hometown, eNkasele. The business’ name translates to “a black forest”, referring to a nearby hill overridden with black wattle from which the business sources its unpopular star ingredient. The business plays an active role in land and water restoration: through their work, they save approximately 700 000 litres of groundwater.
Morumotsho Charcoal Production uses an innovative formula to produce its wattle-based product. The business initially hired seven people, whom Ramabele didn’t have to search far for, as Nkasele, much like the rest of South Africa, is gripped by rampant joblessness.
Testing the product proved to be a challenge for Ramabele and team, but they worked around their first business hurdle and soon began distributing their green product to businesses in the area, including a neighbouring landowner who sells the charcoal in other provinces as well as E&C Charcoal, one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of charcoal on the continent. Their client base also includes local street vendors, caterers and shebeens.
Ramabele’s main hurdle has been increasing production to meet the growing demand for the product due to process delays related to using kilns, which has a knock-on effect on the business’ ability to pay wages and hampers growth. The poor road conditions of his area are an impediment to smooth transportation (often by donkey cart or by tractor in peak demand) and timely production and delivery. But none of this is getting ambitious Ramabele down, primarily when he reflects on his journey thus far.
“Seeing the change and impact in our society because of my vision makes me proud. Now, people can farm and feed themselves again because the land has been restored, and their animals have grazing land. They can even sell again and have income and positively impact their families… I’ve also had opportunities come my way, and I’ve been able to network, learn new things and have experiences that make this a joyful journey,” concludes Ramabele.