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SAEON-supported learners win big at Eskom Expo

By Staff Writer
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Castro Mabunda's innovative 'water refinement vortex'

Year after year a bright young learner from a rural village in Limpopo witnessed his community’s struggle to gain access to potable water.

They were often left without water for days and when water became available again, the quality was poor – the water had a bad odour and a dark colour.

The water problem affected everyone in the village, not least their household, headed by a single mother who tried her best to maintain standards of hygiene and cleanliness.

This year the learner decided it was time to tackle the problem head on. He resolved to search for the root causes to see if he could simultaneously save water and improve water quality to ensure that his community had regular access to potable water.

The grade 12 learner, Castro Mabunda, started off by examining the current water supply system as best he could and then searched the internet for possible solutions. Gradually he started piecing together the basics of a water purifying system that might offer some solutions. But he realised he needed a laboratory to test his hypotheses.

As the laboratory at Majeje High School, where Castro is a learner, had become defunct, he started to ask around where he might be able to find a laboratory that would enable him to continue his work. Amanda Khosa, one of the learners in the Ndlovu Node's schools programme, advised him to contact SAEON for assistance. 


The water refinement vortex designed and built by Limpopo learner Castro Mabunda won him a Siemens bursary worth R1,3 million to study engineering.

Enter Joe Sibiya, the Ndlovu Node’s science engagement officer, and Thabo Mohlala, a technician at the Node, which is based in Phalaborwa, the town nearest to Castro’s village.

Joe told SAEON eNews that he first became aware of Castro when he went to Majeje High School to mentor Amanda Khosa and Ndzalama Tihuhlu (see below) on their science expo project, accompanied by SAEON intern Tsumbedzo Ramalevha. Castro’s name kept popping up while the learners worked and Joe said he became interested in meeting this boy, but Castro had other commitments on the day.

At the regional expo in Phalaborwa, Castro won a gold medal from Foskor for the best innovation project of 2019 and was selected to participate in the Eskom Expo International Science Fair (ISF) in Johannesburg in September.

“There were more than 250 projects in the regional expo, and I never expected to be selected as one of the top four,” says Castro. “It was a proud moment for my mom, who has always been there to support me.”

His peers and educators at Majeje High School were equally proud. “You have left a mark at Majeje High School,” his principal told him.

After the regional science expo Joe finally got to meet Castro when he accompanied Amanda and Ndzalama to the SAEON office to ask for assistance with their science expo projects. Joe studied Castro's project write-up to find him a suitable mentor.

Thabo took all three learners under his wing, mentoring them while they refined their models and prototypes to meet the standards of the National Science Expo. SAEON contributed significantly by providing funds to procure the much-needed materials to build these prototypes, as well as working space and tools.

“Castro Mabunda is an incredible young man, with a fantastic story to tell,” says Thabo. “What struck me about him was the fact that he was so passionate about the work he was doing and never allowed his background to be a limiting factor in his quest for success.”

Thabo challenged Castro to build a prototype of a washer pump to test his dedication and ability. When Castro presented his prototype, Thabo asked him to test it in the lab and it worked! Thabo gave Castro permission to work in SAEON’s water treatment lab to refine and perfect his concept.

“I was super excited and proud that I managed to build this prototype all by myself,” says Castro. “Thabo was a true mentor to me.” On the days that Castro was free to spend time in the lab, Thabo picked him up from home at 08:00 and dropped him there again at 21:00.

“I worked hard in the lab,” says Castro, “and within a week I managed to build a final prototype from the second prototype.” Castro sourced videos on the internet of new techniques that he investigated together with Thabo. This ensured that they both got to grips with new technologies.

It took the learners roughly three weeks to complete their projects. “Castro was one of the learners that caught my attention with his level of hard work, enthusiasm and interest,” says Thabo. “He would put in more time than all the other learners.”

Encouraged by Joe and Thabo, Castro entered his final prototype, the water refinement vortex, into this year’s Eskom Expo for Young Scientists ISF. When the time came for him to travel to Gauteng to compete in the ISF, he was nervous, but excited. 

The budding young engineer succeeded in scooping a gold medal for Best Project in the Environmental Sciences category, two trophies, two Samsung tablets and a R1,3 million bursary from Siemens to study engineering. Through his achievements at the 2019 Eskom Expo ISF, Siemens also awarded his school, Majeje High, R225 000 for a lab upgrade.

When SAEON eNews spoke to him, Castro said he couldn’t wait to share this good news with his mom and his school. “It is like a dream come true,” he said. “I have always wanted to study engineering.”

The bursary allows him to choose from four study options – mechatronics, electronic, mechanical or chemical engineering – at one of three institutions (University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology or University of Venda). For Castro the matter is clear-cut – he has his sights set on mechatronics: “It is a technology of the future that will help our country keep abreast of the challenges of 4IR.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Castro enjoyed the technology aspect of his model the most – using Arduino for programming and installing sensors to figure out how many litres of water get saved.

But Castro’s project does not end here. The visionary young learner has already registered a private company with three of his friends to make potable water available to his own and other communities and to help them save water.

“Castro is a humble, focused and hard-working boy who takes his work seriously and prides himself in the company he has registered with his friends,” says Joe. "For him his challenging living conditions are an encouragement to work even harder to improve his future."

“When I learnt that he did well at the Expo, I was over the moon because I knew how much he deserved to be one of the winners,” says Thabo. “Castro is an incredible young man with a big heart, I learnt so much from him.”

Amanda Khoza, Ndzalama Tihuhlu and Khutso Madiba 


Limpopo learners Ndzalama Tihuhlu (left) and Amanda Khoza were shortlisted to attend an International Science Fair next year and received a silver medal for their project Auto Energy Capture, which can convert CO2 into energy and Methanol.

Amanda Khoza and Ndzalama Tihuhlu were shortlisted to attend an International Science Fair next year and received a silver medal for their project Auto Energy Capture, which can convert CO2 into energy and Methanol. In the Engineering category, the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) awarded each a laptop computer, a solar lamp, a USB and SANEDI apparel.

Khutso Madiba received a bronze medal for his project Sustainable use of water within households, Phalaborwa, Limpopo Province, South Africa. These three learners were mentored and supported by SAEON’s Ndlovu Node.

Aphiwe Sikweza and Lindelihle Manyathi

These two learners were coached and mentored by SAEON’s Elwandle Node. Aphiwe received a gold medal and Best Agricultural Science Award for his project, Berries to the rescue, using golden berries as fertilisers. 

Lindelihle was shortlisted to attend an International Science Fair next year and received a bronze medal and Best Environmental Studies award for his project Understanding Estuaries Using Fish as an Indicator Species

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Lindelihle Manyathi studied fish assemblages associated with vegetated, rocky and sandy habitat to contribute to our understanding of estuaries. Lindelihle won a bronze medal and the Best Environmental Studies award.

Aphiwe Sikweza’s hard work in the lab won him a gold medal and Best Agricultural Science Award in the Eskom Expo International Science Fair for his project, Berries to the rescue, using golden berries as fertilisers.

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