Mertech Marine was the first company in the world to specialise in the recovery and recycling of redundant undersea telecommunication cables, and not surprisingly, is today the world leader in this uncommon field. One would think a company that uses massive naval ships to recover thousands of kilometres of undersea cable was started by a marine engineer; someone with an affinity to the sea. But the truth is a little more unexpected. Mertech Marine was in fact started by a Paarl farmer who asked a single question, and when he saw an opportunity in the answer, set in motion the actions that would take him from terra firma into unchartered waters.
In 1999, Van Wyk van Niekerk attended an auction at the Cape Town Harbour, hoping to perhaps find steel materials that would prove useful on his farm. He won a bid on a particular lot, which happened to include 21km of undersea analogue cable from a system that became redundant in 1993.
Once he had stripped back the cable and saw the possibilities for recycling and repurposing the raw materials, Van Wyk wondered just how much cable might be lying, unused, under the sea. This simple question was to be the catalyst that led to the ignition of Van Wyk’s entrepreneurial spirit and, ultimately, the formation of Mertech Marine.
And then Van Wyk had a crazy idea. What if he were to start a company that retrieved undersea cables, dismantled them and then resold the components to farmers and other industries that would benefit from access to the raw materials?
He went to speak to the one person he knew who shared his entrepreneurial genes and big-idea way of thinking – his brother, Francois van Niekerk, founder of the Mertech Group. They spoke about the possibilities and decided to establish Mertech Marine.
From the initial stripping of the original cable to the first retrieval mission, everything was a learning curve; there simply is no textbook on the subject. But four years later, when an opportunity presented itself, Mertech Marine was ready – or so they thought.
In 2004, the company entered into a contract with the original owners to acquire the SAT-1 cable connecting South Africa with England, which had been out of use since fibre-optic technology came to South Africa in 1993.
Sat-1 was originally done under the auspices of the South Atlantic Cable Company, a joint project between South Africa, Portugal and the UK, with the headquarters on the Canary Islands. By 1994, the technology (and thus the cable) became redundant. Sanctions had been lifted, South Africa was a democratic nation and fibre optic cables were being laid. The South Atlantic Cable Company was liquidated by its original owners and sold to a local in the Canary Islands.
With the sale concluded, Mertech’s next task was to acquire a suitable vessel for the retrieval of their newly purchased cable. A former SA navy vessel was bought in 2005 and planning began for the first mission. This included the building of a first-of-its kind dismantling machine.
In 2006, Mertech Marine were faced with a few obstacles. The first of these was that they came to the unfortunate realisation that the former South African navy vessel was not the ideal vessel for the job. This vessel was sold and the search for a more suitable vessel began. This led to the second snag. While scouting around for a vessel and forging ahead with plans to retrieve the newly acquired SAT-1 cable, Mertech Marine received a phone call from Tenerife, from a man claiming to be the actual legal owner of the SAT-1 cable.
As unlikely as it first sounded, after thorough investigation, it became clear that somehow, an error with the sale contract meant that this man was in fact the legal owner and not Mertech. Needless to say, this made the sale null and void and posed a serious threat to Mertech’s aspirations. But with a hardy farmer approach, Mertech Marine was not going to be stopped by the proverbial spanner. The company then entered into negotiations with the legal owner and after a lengthy process, a deal was signed in October 2007 which made Mertech Marine finally the legal owner of the SAT-1 cable.
The next big challenge was to come soon after. Mertech Marine applied for a permit to import the cable, and was informed that an Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA) would need to be carried out before a permit would be granted.
The EIA was finally completed in March 2008 and with that obstacle behind them (and a whole lot of newly acquired knowledge), the steadily growing Mertech Marine team chartered a cable ship and took to the seas to recover their first 500km of cable. But it was not to be plain sailing for the CS Chamarel. The mission was on an ‘interruptible’ basis, and as luck would have it, after just two weeks, the chartered vessel was called out to perform a maintenance job. By the time the 350km of retrieved cable arrived back in Cape Town, the copper price had dropped considerably amidst the credit crunch and any hope of a profit had vanished.
Never one to dwell on the negative, Mertech Marine’s team focused on the positive. They had proven that retrieving and offloading the cable was possible. They had proven that their own-built dismantling machinery worked. Mertech Marine was in business!
During 2009, Mertech Marine met owners of a small freighting vessel, the MV Lida, and it was decided that Mertech Marine would charter the vessel for the time being, and install the cable recovery equipment. During 2014 Mertech Marine bought the MV Lida from its owners, and in 2015 they also bought the MV Layla and the MV Aniek – sister vessels of the MV Lida. Due to the low fuel consumption in comparison with cable ships, these vessels perfectly fit the original aim to establish an environmentally friendly recovery and recycling business.
The components which are being recycled at present are cable, wire, copper, polyethylene and aluminium. At this point, Mertech Marine has already recovered and recycled 20,250km of undersea telecommunication cable and attributed 708,750 metric tonnes towards the volume of CO² emission savings.
Since 2009, Mertech Marine’s factory added two dismantling machines and a self-designed state of the art steel cable and wire factory. Cable and wire is marketed under the brand Mertech Cable and Wire, and offers an economical alternative for farmers building cattle kraals, erecting hail nets over fruit orchards, and for vegetable and vineyard trellising. Thanks to a stroke of luck, entrepreneurial vision and the tenacity of a farmer, Mertech Marine is today leading the way in sub-marine cable retrieval and recycling – and continues to learn, grow, improve and pioneer.
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