How Mafuta Sasa is turning waste cooking oil into clean-burning biodiesel in East Africa

In Tanzania, an entrepreneur turns waste cooking oil into an alternative to diesel fuel and (as a bonus) liquid soap.

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Michael Mwakilasa, Manager of Mafuta Sasa Ltd. based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, stands by barrels of waste vegetable oil (WVO) collected from local hotels, restaurants, and street carts. Previously, Mwakilasa distributed merchandise on tour with Janet Jackson, NSync, and countless other American pop stars; authored a children's book on Julius Nyerere, Tanzania's founding father; and worked for several years at a New York City law firm.

Michael Mwakilasa is not your typical Tanzanian entrepreneur, and Mafuta Sasa Ltd is not your typical African energy company. After spending a year experimenting with converting waste vegetable oil (WVO) into usable biodiesel fuel in a New York City garage, Mr. Mwakilasa launched Mafuta Sasa Ltd, the first WVO-to-biodiesel company in East Africa.

Based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the company collects their WVO from hotels, restaurants, and street cart vendors from across Dar es Salaam for a small fee and brings it to their refinery, where it undergoes a carefully calculated process of mixing, heating, cooling, settling, and sifting before it is turned into clean-burning biodiesel that meets the exacting specifications of local petroleum diesel. The biodiesel is then sold back to hotels, bakeries, apartments, other establishments around the city seeking cheaper, cleaner burning fuel.

With the price of petroleum diesel hovering at around 1,800-2,000 TSH per liter ($5.30 per US gallon), Mafuta Sasa’s biodiesel is the cheaper alternative at 1,250 TSH. Yet a competitive price is the least of their concerns. They have faced several barriers to expansion, one of which is government policy. Tanzania currently has no legal framework or policies around biodiesel, which limits the company to small-scale distribution and bars access to more traditional fuel markets like gas stations.

Yet the biggest challenge Mafuta Sasa faces appears to be the market itself. Many people Mwakilasa comes across in Tanzania still call him crazy when he says, “We’re making diesel from your used cooking oil!” The market has yet to understand the fuel, the differences between diesel and biodiesel (or the lack thereof), and will require wide-scale education on the product before it can become broadly adopted, as the company hopes it will.

Despite the challenges ahead, Mwakilasa remains optimistic and continues to see opportunities for Mafuta Sasa in Tanzania. He is beginning to explore alternative models for supply, such as contracting small-scale farmers to produce Jatropha seeds, from which oil can be extracted and used to create biodiesel, which would give rural farmers an income-generating activity and increase Mafuta Sasa’s production capacity. He has also stumbled upon a separate business as a result of the refinery’s byproducts: liquid soap.

Glycerin, one of the inputs used to convert the WVO to usable biodiesel, can be easily used after the mixing process as a strong, black liquid soap. They call it Sash – and it should be hitting the Tanzanian markets soon.

This is part of an ongoing series of slideshows by The (BoP) Project.

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