By Carissa Drury
Mpho Makutu is paying for his tertiary education — with trash. An enterprising inventor, Makutu’s interest in technology and self-driven pursuit of knowledge is enabling him to build remote-controlled cars, robots, and even a crane made from recycled materials.
Makutu started experimenting with electronic inventions in grade 5 when he built toy cars from wire and tin cans.
Soon, he was pinching electronic parts wherever he could find them at home. His father wasn’t too pleased — his sound system was first to be pulled apart.
As his technological skills developed, Makutu knew he would have to leave his home in Kopermyn, a rural community in Polokwane, and move to a bigger city to pursue his interest in robotics.
After matriculating in 2015, Makutu headed to Johannesburg to study further, but struggled with the cost of living.
So he continued to make robots and cars to demonstrate and sell in Soweto, using materials sourced from dump sites.
“My friends and family were amazed to see that trash could make a colourful robot,” he says.
The income from Makutu’s creations is enabling him to train in automotive repairs and maintenance at South West Gauteng technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college, where he is able to apply his natural affinity for electronics.
Makutu’s goal now is to provide solutions to problems his community faces rather than simply delighting with his inventions.
Motivated to help the people in his hometown, where subsistence farming is the primary way of life, Makutu designed and built a windmill with wire and a permanent magnet motor to pump water.
Currently, he’s in the process of perfecting the crane he built, which weighs 12 kilograms, is two metres tall and can make 360-degree turns controlled by a seven-lever remote.
It’s made entirely from trash – planks, coat hanger wires, cardboard, cool drink cans, drills from old motors, and even deodorant bottle caps.
“I’m very proud of the work that I do,” Makutu says. At a time when employment levels are desperately low for South Africa’s youth, and education is difficult to finance, Makutu is creating a solution for himself and his community out of scrap.