They take what would otherwise be dull and boring stones, crush them, and reconstitute them into abnormally hard and glistering tiles and countertops that have intrigued the nation!
As members of the National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s Engineered Stone research team which includes Mr Lesia Matlali and Mr Setlhare Jane move around Lesotho, they are not only fascinated by Lesotho’s abundant stone resources, they are determined to turn them into remarkable products.
Lesotho, they claim, is endowed with stone resources whose potential we have barely scratched. “We can safely say Lesotho has a potential to be called a Stone Capital of Africa.”
Engineered stones are “stones” made from extremely concentrated natural stone aggregates in a polymer matrix. They bear all the hallmarks of natural stones such as granite and marble, but they are the engineered kind.
They have a peculiarly stunning appearance, texture and lasting shine. If made from quartz, which exists in trillions of tonnes in Lesotho, they beat the best in the natural stone world. And they come with unlimited colours, textures and hues.
The group was formed in 2010, and it immediately began to maintain a laser focus on stones. Some even called it a ‘stone-group.’ “Wherever the members of this group go, you will see them giving a penetrating look at rocks,” some say.
The group’s office and lab space is filled with stone samples of all kinds; natural and artificial.
“We are not geologists, we are technologists,” Lesia said. “Whenever we see stones, we’re always wondering, how can we turn these stones into something more valuable?”
In the same year that the group was formed, it was not only experimenting with stones, “our team started moving around Maseru to find who was willing to fund our research,” Jane disclosed.
“Back then, we met Lesotho Funeral Services (LFS) which showed amazing interest on the stones from the beginning— and that was the beginning.”
They said LFS’ willingness to support their research with not just words but with funds was the most surprising. “It was surprising because NUL was a media’s punching bag at that time—very few people believed in us.” By now, the company has poured millions into the research.
By Lesotho’s barest minimum standards, LFS’ understanding was extraordinary in a country where funding product development research does not take the back seat, but takes no seat at all.
Armed with unexpected funding, the team quietly gathered within its ranks, a battalion of Chemical Technology graduates and students and got into the lab. It would stay in there for close to a decade. “We wanted to see if it was possible to produce engineered stones in Lesotho, using rocks mined in Lesotho,” they said.
With geological maps at hand, plus a generous technical support of the Ministry of Mining, the team toured the country to identify nicely placed stone deposits of the right kind. They identified deposits in Mohale’s hoek, Mafeteng, and Butha-Butha.
But Maseru, they said, was the most startling! And right by the corner.
At one place in Maseru, working with seasoned geologists, they identified 27 million tonnes of the deposits! They were stunned! And they decided to settle there. Curious but friendly villagers around the area would always come and ask, “What have you guys spotted on our land? Do we, perhaps, have some diamonds around here?”
It turns out there was something more than just a diamond—a wealth of quartz minerals buried therein.
The group members still remember the time they made their first engineered stone development trials, “It was the ugliest stone we could ever make.” But little did they know that something extremely interesting was building up.
Over the years, the project has been surrounded and supported by tens of extremely curious chemical Technology graduates and students who left no stone unturned.
The industriousness of these folks, the extremely supportive NUL Management, the financial support of LFS, the business development support of Obel Investment Holdings, all these kept the fire burning through thick and thin, they said.
After trying every rule on the book, there was a breakthrough. Day by day, week by week, month by month, their products were getting closer and closer to standard engineered stone products.
They woke up one fateful day and they were dumbfounded! They had an engineered stone in their hands, made using stone from Lesotho.
That was it!
For LFS, which was pumping money endlessly into the research, literally throwing a dice, there was sighing of relief.
To master the finishing touches, they found European partners . “Armed with their latest technology they possessed, we radically changed our product’s aesthetics to the level it is now.”
A public company in the name of AfriQuartz Ltd is already registered. The company is presently owned by the founding institutions, including NUL.
A lot of work still needs to be done and more investment is needed. “Talks are at advanced stage to get a support of the University of South Africa (UNISA)’s highly experienced mineral processing and mining engineering experts to join the team.”
Next time your inquisitive eyes pierce through the beauty of Lesotho’s legendarily beautiful mountains, hills, cliffs, valleys, gorges and plateaus—remember—there is more to those things than meets the eye.