Toronto Group – Cooking with Charcoal

Toronto Group is a charcoal manufacturing company based in the Western Cape. The Group will be producing charcoal from invasive species, and will also be introducing by-products to market in the form of biochar and activated carbon. We talk to the southern hemisphere’s premier charcoal producer.

In South Africa, we import the bulk of our activated carbon and that’s a market we should be able to play in,” says Philip Mulungo, Toronto Group’s CEO. “Our charcoal will be 100% exported, we’re currently having offtake in the UK and Belgium. We’re looking into Scandinavian countries as well. The charcoal is used for the restaurant market, barbecues and industry.”

The business was funded by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Department of Trade Industry and Competition (through the Black Industrialist Scheme) to the value of about R150,000,000.00 and the land on which the plant is being built was financed through the Landbank.

“The business was also assisted by the Western Cape Government through its agencies to ensure that we’re able to achieve our business objectives, and the Swartland Local Municipality played a crucial role and continues to do so,” Mulungo tells us.

Cleaner Charcoal

The Toronto Group will be running the biggest industrial charcoal plant in the Southern Hemisphere, producing at least 10,000 tonnes of charcoal per annum from 100% invasive species. The fact that Toronto only uses invasive species is just part of the company’s environmentally responsible approach, which can also be seen in the fastidious attention to detail the company pays to its supply chain and processes.

Mulungo explains, “We have FSC chain of custody controlled wood certification, where at every step from our biomass source until the end-user is tracked, so anyone can come and verify anything through the chain of custody monitoring we’ve put in place.”

While Toronto Group is playing a groundbreaking role in the South African charcoal industry, it also faces challenges, particularly when it comes to sourcing raw materials and transporting its goods.

“One of the critical challenges that we have is around the distance from wood source to plant because we can only work with feedstock within a certain radius,” Mulungo says. “That means we have to think out of the box, and we’re already starting to think forward about how we can mitigate that risk. Another challenge with the export market is that charcoal that has not gone through proper cooling and curing processes can spontaneously ignite, resulting in the shipping companies having more stringent controls which makes it expensive to transport. We need to work around that with treatment and cooling and other processes, ensuring they are followed to prevent spontaneous combustion.”

As well as dealing with its own challenges, the Toronto Group is also working hard to tackle some of the problems South Africa as a whole faces, through its hiring and labour practices.

“South Africa as a country is an unequal society, so what we’re looking to do is make entry to work with us as open as it can be. We train our team to be able to render the services we require,” Mulungo says. “In as far as staff retention is concerned, we have several initiatives. One I’m excited about is a scheme where employees have a level of ownership in the business with certain requirements and agreements with the company, allowing them to reap the rewards, alongside other incentives to ensure employees take ownership and become our eyes and ears.”

This approach goes beyond Toronto’s employees, extending into how the company engages with surrounding communities.

“We make sure the communities we work in benefit from our CSR initiatives to, for example, support local schools,” Mulungo says. “The level of poverty here is something we want to combat by making sure the communities have access to education and healthcare.”

Built Through Partnerships

This attitude of going the extra mile can be also be seen in Toronto Group’s relationships with its suppliers.

“There are instances where we work with smaller companies, which we part-pay in advance for their services, to make sure they’re able to render services at the level we require,” Mulungo says. “Thus we’re able to empower them and assist in their enterprise development.”

These collaborations are mutually beneficial, and Mulungo is keen to reveal the role that Toronto Group’s valued partners have had in helping build the business.

“Isipani Construction has been identified as our preferred construction company. In early September they began with the construction of the charcoal project,” Mulungo says.

Of course, it is essential for Toronto Group that their partners adhere to the strict standard the company holds itself to.

“All tendering companies were informed that they must be BBBEE compliant, as well as ensuring they have the proper health monitoring processes to ensure there’s safety as far as COVID is concerned.,” Mulungo says.

Another valued partner has been Toronto Group’s EPCM partner.

“Lesedi Nuclear Services have ensured everything is done according to our high standards, providing savings on our costs while also ensuring quality,” Mulungo points out. “They came in to ensure our procurement is up to standard and as efficient as possible, with acceptable costs.”

For Mulungo, these partnerships are about knowing where Toronto Group’s limitations lie, and not being afraid to bring in expertise where necessary.

“I say to people do what you’re good at. I’m a good entrepreneur but I needed to bring in expertise I don’t have, so we brought them to take care of that,” he says.

Mulungo is confident that Toronto Group’s work is entering an exciting stage, allowing it to give back yet more to the community.

“We’re in the process of realising the second phase of the Toronto Group’s development, a second plant which we want to go live in the next 24 months in the Eastern Cape. There’s a process to go through with land zoning, environmental impact assessment and other regulatory requirements to develop that business,” Mulungo says.

He adds, “We can produce charcoal in a clean manner, especially for industrial consumers, and they can use Toronto as a partner in their carbon emissions reduction strategy and to generate carbon credits. We can be a partner of choice.”

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