At only 25, Mthatha-born scientist Siyabulela Xuza, who has often been referred to as the new Mark Shuttleworth, had a planet named after him.
When Siyabulela Xuza was a young child, he almost set his mother’s kitchen on fire while experimenting with homemade rocket fuel. To date, he has garnered worldwide acclaim for that same rocket fuel, has presented in front of dignitaries such as Steve Wozniak and Michelle Obama, met the King of Sweden and attended a Nobel Prize ceremony. Oh, and he has a minor planet named after him at age 25. Leadership sat down with this remarkable young man who is turning his attention to Africa’s energy problems.
For all his achievements, Xuza remains incredibly humble and unaffected, something that can be attributed to his upbringing in Mthatha, a small town in the Eastern Cape. “By all accounts, I had a normal upbringing. Mthatha is a small township with not a lot of resources so I learnt to use what I had at my disposal. I played a lot of soccer, but I was a very curious child, always asking questions. I had a burning desire to figure out how things worked.”
There is a heart-warming anecdote that Xuza tells about when he first fell in love with engineering. When he was 5, he was chasing the roar of a Cessna plane dropping election pamphlets over Mthatha. “It was 1994, the first year of a new democracy in South Africa, and the sight of that technological marvel ignited in me a curiosity for science and a passion for using technology to engineer an African renaissance.”
Inspired by Mark Shuttleworth’s exploration into space, Xuza began experimenting with rocket fuel. The rocket fuel, which culminated in the successful launch of a real home-built rocket, The Phoenix, achieved a final height of over a kilometre and earned him the junior South African amateur high-powered altitude record.
The rocket was propelled by Xuza’s own invention: a cheaper, safer type of rocket fuel, which became the subject of a project titled ”African Space: Fuelling Africa’s quest to space”. It won him a gold medal in the 2006 Eskom National Science Expo as well as a trip to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden, where he presented his work to the Swedish king and queen.
Xuza’s homemade rocket fuel also won him the top prize in its category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the United States, earning him global recognition and, perhaps more pertinently, a scholarship to Harvard University.
But Xuza is no one-trick pony. At Harvard he studied Mandarin and world music and even used his background as a praise singer to open big university events and perform if there was a class on ethnic music or African culture. Consequently, Xuza is blurring the lines between the liberal arts and science. “I truly believe that people cannot rely on purely engineering to develop the world; they need to understand art and understand society in order to put a context to whatever invention they are developing. To be a great engineer, you have to be creative. I believe that people shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into one category or another."
As an engineer by trade, Xuza’s embracing of the liberal arts at Harvard may seem contradictory, but in actual fact has served as the perfect foil to his engineering prowess, as he has gained greater understanding of societal issues that pertain not only to his immediate surroundings, but back home as well. “I did my thesis on the energy storage platform based on micro fuel cells. Too many engineers are concerned with finding the new solar power or the new technology. I am more concerned with storing energy.”
In addition to the scholarship to Harvard, Xuza also had the prestigious honour of having a minor planet named after him by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in recognition of his innovation in homemade rocket fuel. The minor planet, with an orbital period of four years, was discovered in 2000 and renamed “23182 siyaxuza” in recognition of Siya’s achievements at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
In 2011 he became a fellow of the Kairos Society, a global network of top student and global leaders using entrepreneurship and innovation to solve the world’s greatest challenges. He was invited to the United Nations and the New York Stock Exchange in recognition for being one of the world’s emerging business leaders and to offer strategies for solving the world’s energy crisis.
Xuza’s journey, literally to the galaxy, has finally brought him back to South Africa. His thesis at Harvard centred on creating a storage platform based on micro fuel cells. In layman’s terms, a fuel cell is a device that converts chemical energy into electric energy. Xuza’s field of expertise is energy storage and he is currently developing a sustainable model for energy storage based on micro fuel cells in South Africa. His breakthrough on fuel cell storage has recently been accepted for publication.
Xuza acknowledges that there is no simple solution to a problem as complex as energy. “I believe a multifaceted approach is needed for energy. We can’t just advocate for renewables alone, or for fossil fuel-based energy. What we need is an approach that acknowledges Africa’s abundance of fossil resources, solar, and wind and integrate that into a balanced energy supply.”
Although South Africa has the highest global platinum reserves, a key component in fuel cells, Xuza believes that it is up to our younger generation to help harness that potential. “There is an entire fuel cell programme funded by the Department of Minerals and Energy, but there remains a gap for innovators. We have to break out of this generational entitlement that we sometimes fall into in order to use what he have at our disposal and not waiting for others. We need more Africans involved as scientists, and engineers who are involved in South Africa’s energy economy.
“People don’t realise that all my work with the rocket fuel was done in South Africa. There are opportunities here, as long as you are bold and brave enough to take them.”
Xuza acknowledges that he has been extremely privileged to have met and been mentored by some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who have helped him realise the need to pair engineering with business. “My experiences around the world have motivated my passion, which is not just engineering but entrepreneurship as well. I learnt that engineering is not a means to an end; that lies with business and entrepreneurship.”
Xuza’s story, as remarkable as it is, is unfortunately an anomaly in Africa, as there is a dearth of engineers willing to be innovators as well – something he believes is desperately needed on the continent.
“My travels around Africa have shown me that there is a need for entrepreneurship, leaders who are able to acknowledge the opportunities we have on the continent.” Xuza does, however, acknowledge the opportunity to study abroad that was granted to him, and urges any young South Africans to grasp such opportunity with both hands, should it arise.
“There are great opportunities in South Africa, especially in energy. However, studying overseas not only broadens the mind but also will give great exposure and lay the platform for when one starts one’s engineering career. If one were to get granted acceptance into Harvard, that’s just the cherry on top!”
If Xuza’s achievements were not impressive enough, he is currently the youngest member of Africa 2.0’s Energy advisory council, a pan-African committee that is looking to create a framework for Africa’s energy resources. Xuza’s role in the council is a decision-making one, and he assists in crafting that framework, which is then shared with Africa 2.0’s parent organisation, the African Union.
It is incredible to think that the responsibility of shaping Africa’s energy future falls on the shoulders of this young man. Xuza, however, remains incredibly humble and attributes much of his success to his experiences with the recently passed Tata Nelson Mandela. Xuza was Mandela’s praise singer as a youth and was lucky enough to get to know the great man on a personal level – something he remains deeply honoured by.
“I had the privilege of not only being inspired by Tata Mandela, but getting to know him and members of his family on a personal level. One of the things I learnt from him was that is not important that you succeed, but how you succeed, the values you share and the integrity you show. At the core of leadership is integrity.”
It is this integrity-driven model that is fuelling Xuza’s passion. “I’m motivated not by material things but by achieving significance.” His long-term goals centre on creating his own energy solution company, something he says will help harness Africa’s potential in the energy economy. In the interim, he is busy delivering innovation-themed talks by sharing his insights and expertise with audiences across the country.
“I’m very happy to be back in South Africa. I’m excited to be able to grow the economy as well as inspire others to do the same. I’m very passionate about developing a culture of innovation in South Africa”, he concludes.