A National University of Science and Technology graduate is turning Harare’s plastic waste into diesel in a pioneering project that could go a long way in addressing Zimbabwe’s chronic fuel shortages.
Farai Masendo’s invention won him the Total Zimbabwe’s 2018/19 Start Upper Challenge and he is not looking back.
Masendo (FM) told our business reporter Fidelity Mhlanga (FMM) that with enough financial support he could produce one million litres of diesel a day from plastic waste.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
FMM: How did this idea come about?
FM: I started this project in 2016. This was my final year project at the National University of Science and Technology (Nust) where I was studying chemical engineering.
So I decided to take it further. We are a team of six and I have students on attachment from Nust.
We also work with street kids, who supply us with empty plastic bottles and we pay them.
Our vision is to have them on board when we become a bigger company.
Those are the workers that we will give first preference because they know where we are coming from.
They are helping us build this vision. It’s just a matter of training them.
FMM: Where did you get funding to start this project?
FM: I have been using money from my personal savings to build the company to where it is now. I have used close to $15 000.
This funding of $10 500 I won from Total Zimbabwe will enable me to scale up and produce at least 200 litres of diesel per day.
I will also use the funds to scale up my equipment and create another process line with bigger equipment for producing the diesel because the current processing line is very small.
FMM: Can you take us through the diesel processing?
FM: We collect waste plastics and clean them and shred them into small particles to increase the surface area available for the reaction process to take place.
After that, they go to our reactor where they undergo catalytic cracking — depolymerisation and reorientation.
Gas is produced and gas passes through heat exchangers whereby it cools off to produce diesel. This is now chemistry.
The important parameter on our catalyst, which we design on our own, is the one that gives us better yields and the desired product, which is diesel at a better purity level.
FMM: How many plastic collection centres do you have?
FM: We have four in Harare’s central business district. We have one along Rezende Street, then another one around Mbuya Nehanda Street.
We collect some of the plastics during the national clean-up campaigns, which we also participate in.
We are also in the process of adopting one of the streets in Harare, which we will be maintaining.
The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) is facilitating that.
We have also been participating in national clean-up campaigns even before the government put it on the calendar whereby we were mobilising people through WhatsApp once every month to collect waste.
FMM: How do you transport waste plastics to your plant?
FM: We have a small car that we are using, which is a general purpose vehicle. For every quantity of waste plastic, we recover 60% into diesel and 40% is wax used for making polish.
So from waste plastic we are converting it into two usable resources, which are diesel and wax.
The moment our plant becomes big you won’t see any litter in Harare, everyone will be picking it up and channelling it to us for processing.
We have customers who want our product, but we cannot meet the demand. We can’t process more litter plastic because our capacity is very low.
FMM: Has the diesel been tested and certified by regulators?
FM: Yes, it has been tested and certified. I actually received an award from the Research Council of Zimbabwe in 2017.
At the moment we are not using it for cars, but for industries that consume a lot of diesel to power generators and fire boilers.
Our vision is to supply industries so that they leave imported fuel for vehicles and this will reduce our import bill and save foreign currency
FMM: How much are you selling the diesel for?
FM: We are selling it at $2 per litre and we produce close to 20 litres per day.
We are anticipating producing close to 200 litres per day by end of March as we scale up.
Apparently if we get $100 000 we will have a plant that can process six tonnes of waste plastics per day, which will in turn produce close to 4 000 litres of diesel per day.
With that plant running at 24 hours, we will be able to create close to 40 direct jobs and plenty more indirect jobs.
Currently we are processing 500kg of waste plastic per month and we are processing any type of plastic.
FMM: Have you pitched your project for government support?
FM: I have engaged a lot of people in government, even the president himself, but they said they would give us feedback later.
So I think they are occupied. But sometimes people don’t understand what you want to do.
Also the United Nations representatives have been to our plant. EMA has been to our plant as well.
I submitted through the Research Council of Zimbabwe and even the Environment and Climate Change. But I have not received any financial support.
FMM: What is your five-year vision for the company?
FM: My vision is to have plants in all the country’s provinces.
I have applied for a tender at Harare City Council for a partnership for a waste energy plant at the Pomona landfill.
I submitted the applications and I will wait to hear from them. If they give us an opportunity we won’t hesitate, we will go there.
If we establish 10 plants in provinces, we envisage to produce one million litres of diesel per day, getting 100 000 litres from each plant.
FMM: Is it also possible to produce petrol from waste plastic?
FM: At the moment the method that we are using is suitable for producing diesel and wax only. It’s a matter of playing with functional groups and the bonds for petrol are a big challenge. I have tried it.
However, we will involve ourselves in research and development to come up with the necessary solutions.
FMM: So are you also selling wax that you derive from waste plastic?
FM: I sell it to guys who make floor polish at 60 cents per kg. But when we get there we will also package it and sell it commercially.
FMM: How are you coping with the overheads?
FM: These days it has been a challenge. Rentals have gone up. They have actually doubled and I have been running at a loss.
So I thank Total Zimbabwe for this fund, which I hope will bail me out.
Meanwhile, we need to increase our revenues to deal with operational costs. We should scale up our production and we will be able to break even.
The process we are using is feasible and economic. With a plant that processes three tonnes of waste plastic, I can make a profit of close to 80 000 RTGS dollars and to have that plant we need about $100 000 capital.
FMM: Are you not scared that someone will steal your idea?
FM: If it was meant to be stolen, by now it could have been stolen. I have been pushing this agenda for quite a long time.
If I was someone else, I could have given up because it is a big challenge to be an entrepreneur in Zimbabwe.