Michael Manaka is a self-made artisan building oil purifying plants from his home garage in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg. He is mature, to say the least. In 2010, when his peers were heading for retirement, the 60-year-old founded Machoroma Oil Specialists following an epiphany in his sleep. He vows to work until his last breath.

“I had a dream visiting my boss Edward Michael Povazan on his farm in Drakensburg. He told me: ‘I have a garden full of grapes. You can have the seeds and make your own garden at home. You will enjoy them with your wife and children’. This is a man who taught me everything, from designing and building machines. I knew the dream wasn’t about grapes but was opening my eyes about starting on my own,” says Manaka.

It all started in 1982, when Manaka, at the age of 25, was working at a company in Johannesburg called Fluidex Engineering. In those days, during apartheid, Manaka was denied opportunities because he was black. Povazan, an engineer from the Czech Republic, taught him everything he knows, including how to build oil purifying machines.

“In 1986, I was sent to Olifantsfontein Trade Test Centre to get a qualification as a machine designer and fitter, and I was the only black man being tested that week. My white counterparts told me I won’t make it. Indeed, I was the only one who failed,” says Manaka.

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Despite not getting a qualification, Manaka worked even harder for success. It paid off; he was promoted to chief designer until the company was bought by Remex Engineering in 2007.

The new owner promised Manaka shares after he spent two years recruiting and training others. One of his recruits was his nephew Johannes Manaka, who still works with him.

“Johannes is now a designer and a machine builder like me. He learned from the best and my son, Sello, is an academic person, so he is our paperwork guy,” he says.

While working for Remex, Manaka says a Malaysian businessman gave his team work to build machines for export. Manaka went to Malaysia to train people to build and maintain these machines.

“After I worked for two years for Remex I went to remind the boss about his promise of shares, but I was hurt a lot when he told me it was just a verbal agreement. He said I can go wherever, he wasn’t honoring that. So, I pulled out.”

In early 2010, with his teacher wife, Manaka took his pension fund to register his family business Machoroma Oil Specialists. The company designs and builds turbine oil purification plants, transformer purification plants and hydraulic purification plants, for mines and engineering companies.

With the little money he had, Manaka could only design a prototype machine but he struggled to get businesses to buy in. He went to Kelvin Power Station, owned by Investec and Nedbank Capital, with a proposal.

“I went there with piles of paper to show them designs for my prototype machine. They told me they couldn’t help me because they needed to see a physical machine that I can show them. I tried by all means to raise money, I even went to Nedbank for a personal loan,” he says.

Manaka got a R100,000 loan ($7,000). With this loan, and the money from his pension, Manaka built the first machine in his garage.

“I started buying and putting parts together building components until I was in the process of building a prototype plant costing roughly about R300,000 ($21,000),” he says.

But the money wasn’t enough to complete the machine, so Manaka took a job as a maintenance foreman at Baymont Holdings to earn the rest.

On weekends, Manaka continued assembling the machine in his garage.

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When the machine was built and standing, Manaka says it was difficult for him to penetrate the market. He went back to Kelvin Power Station to show them his machine that produced up to 10,000 liters of recycled oil per hour. Unfortunately, the power station was no longer interested.

Early this year, through the Ekurhuleni Municipality in Johannesburg’s East Rand, Manaka learned of Lepharo, an engineering and base metal incubation center in Springs.

“Manaka is one of over 100 clients incubated for the purpose of assisting with overall business compliance, access to fund and access to market. The workshop he is renting is subsidized by the center, however he can only rent it for a period of 12 months, this is to ensure that he pays marketed related costs to ensure competitiveness,” says Matimba Makaringe, Business Development Manager at Lepharo.

“They are helping us with marketing and paperwork,” says Manaka.

While Manaka is waiting for his payday for his oil purifying machine, he has not given up on his dream of teaching.

Manaka says he is inundated with calls for his expertise, but none have money behind them.

When FORBES AFRICA visited his home in September, Manaka was in his garage designing a new wax water oil separation machine commissioned by ChemSystems, a company in Chloorkop in Kempton Park.

“I call myself an industrialist, because I start these machines from scratch and I make them happen. I am the best man to build these machines to specifications. If I were to build a machine, I need as little as R250,000 ($17,500) to over R5 million ($350,000), for a machine or plant that can be used at a parastatal, like Eskom. But, as a black company and small company, businesspeople are still reluctant to work with us and see how we can help the country move forward,” he says.

Manaka says countries around the world are encouraged to stay away from nuclear and coal-powered stations – and that’s exactly what his creations are about.

“If I’m allowed the space and resources, we will be able to build machines for Africa and for exporting… The kind of machines that are out there are the same as those I built in 1989, nothing has changed except operations, meaning that they are only changing from manual to automatic. There are no innovations,” says Manaka.

Like his machines, Manaka wants to run as long as he can. – Written by Permla Ramakobya