This post is part of a series of stories featuring the entrepreneurs who participated in Unreasonable Mexico’s second annual program.


When Jonatan Hernández Díaz was a child, he used to help his grandfather on the farm in Puebla, Mexico, for one peso a week (less than six cents). One day, Díaz’s grandfather asked him to promise two things: first, he would study hard, and second, he would never come back to work on the farm or any farm at all.

Díaz only kept one of these promises.

Whether it was selling homework answers in elementary school, running a street corner tamale stand in secondary school, or pushing a snack cart around campus to pay for university, Díaz has always exhibited a penchant for entrepreneurship.

In 2013 alone, approximately 1,700 deaths in Mexico City were attributed to pollution. Tweet This Quote

During his first year studying chemical engineering, he got interested in biodiesel production. After just three years of research and a shelf full of prizes from business competitions, he developed a catalyst that dramatically reduced the production costs of this alternative fuel.

While Díaz kept his grandfather’s promise to study, he broke the second one and returned to the farm several years later. Only this time, he wasn’t looking for work. Instead, he wanted to find the raw material that would fuel his future company.

Castor plant for clean energy

DerTek farmers examine a castor plant

Founded in the state of Oaxaca in 2013, DerTek is dedicated to the production and commercialization of biofuels from raw materials that aren’t used as food sources and would otherwise go to waste.

While searching on his grandfather’s farm, he discovered the perfect raw material—the castor oil plant. In Mexico, the castor plant, or higuerilla, is considered a useless scrub—a weed to be cut and discarded. For over 500 years, Mexicans have burned it because no one saw its value.

Díaz realized if he could harness the wasted productivity from this seemingly worthless plant, he could support the environment by developing clean, renewable energy—important when since the late 1980s, Mexico has battled poor air quality. Decades of anti-pollution polices have significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and smog levels, but the number of vehicles in Mexico almost tripled in that time. In 2013 alone, approximately 1,700 deaths in Mexico City were attributed to pollution. Even though in March, Mexico became the first developing nation to formally pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2030, plenty of work remains.

For 500 years, Mexicans have cut down and burned the castor plant before realizing it could be turned into fuel. Tweet This Quote

In addition to improving the environment, Díaz also knew he could provide thousands of jobs to Mexican farm workers by building a plantation and growing large amounts of the castor plant alongside other crops like beans and corn.

At first, the local farmers thought Díaz was crazy for suggesting they actively grow castor instead of remove it. But when he purchased 700 hectares (one hectare is comparable to the size of a standardized football or soccer field) of land in Oaxaca to start building his company, the farmers saw that Díaz was serious and that castor could be a real opportunity.

“In Oaxaca, we employ almost 300 people who don’t have to go risk their lives crossing the border into the U.S. to find work,” said Díaz. These workers stay because DerTek pioneered this kind of intercropping with the castor plant—a process that lasts for 10 months out of the year, nearly eliminating the need to seek work elsewhere.

Of the estimated one million hired farm workers currently in the United States, 75% were born in Mexico. Tweet This Quote

For years, Mexicans have fled home to find work abroad. Of the estimated one million hired farm workers currently in the United States, 75% were born in Mexico.

“People here in Oaxaca don’t have the same opportunities as they do in Mexico City or other states in the country that have more money,” said Díaz. “There’s a lot of poverty and not a lot of opportunity. What inspires me is helping these people achieve more.”

In total, according to Díaz, DerTek employs 6,000 workers with plans to expand significantly. After two years of seeking financial support from the government, Díaz finally secured a grant of around 1.5 million USD to establish over 2,000 hectares of land, build a factory in Oaxaca and scale production.

Biofuel energy factory

DerTek’s new factory in construction in Oaxaca, Mexico

As the company accelerates its capacity to transform castor into clean energy, DerTek expects to create up to 18,000 jobs on the farm and in the factory over the next three years.

Currently, DerTek sells its biodiesel, Biodinox, to a wide range of companies in Mexico, which choose to purchase it because of the lower cost—3 USD/gallon compared to 3.16 USD/gallon for traditional diesel fuel. DerTek also licenses its technology for biofuel production, charging companies a price that changes depending on their production capacity. With the new factory now in construction, Díaz envisions a wide variety of future uses for the castor plant.

Two years from now, DerTek aims to incorporate a technology that uses his catalyst to turn organic solid waste into biofuel. By working with municipalities to divert garbage from both landfills and open space to his company, DerTek will reduce pollution and contamination, as well as save the government money.

This company employs almost 3000 people who don’t have to risk their lives crossing the U.S. border to find work. Tweet This Quote

But Díaz doesn’t plan to settle with improving the environment and the energy industry in Mexico or employing thousands of people. Once his factory is in operation for a year, he plans to allocate 20% of all revenue back to DerTek’s farmers so they can create their own community projects in coordination with local foundations, with the goal of lifting their families out of poverty entirely.

“Some kids working on farms don’t have the resources to go to school, but they might have the potential to find the cure for cancer or AIDS,” said Díaz. “How many people are like that? They just don’t have opportunities to fulfill that potential and impact other people in Mexico and around world. Changing that is the most important thing for me.”

Love DerTek?

Learn More Here!

 

About the author

Brittany Lane

Brittany Lane

Brittany is the global editor of Unreasonable.is, which exists to drive resources and value to entrepreneurs around the world solving big f*$ckin' problems. She believes lasting change happens at the intersection of entrepreneurship and empathy and that good storytelling can move mountains.

  • Nadine

    I find this story fascinating and inspiring. One person’s drive and education can serve a purpose beyond themselves and deeply impact not only the people around them, but the world. I’d love to know how Diaz learned about the castor oil plant’s potential
    as a biofuel, and the process used to break it down. When does the company
    fully plan on the expansion? I would love to see follow up articles soon
    on the project and a look into families and people helped through this work.
    How has the plant specifically and statistically changed environmental impact
    so far?

    The idea behind helping the environment by helping people with jobs is always great, as often times we see the two social needs pinned against each other. Diaz seems to truly care about where he came from and the lives of the people there. How was he able to start the venture? How did he go about reaching out to investors, and how did
    he build himself to a place where he could start such a large venture as this
    one?

    This company could be the
    building block for the betterment of an entire society and change Mexico
    agriculturally, economically, and environmentally. It has the opportunity to
    make waves in the lives of its workers, but also in the lives of each person in
    the nation. With government involvement in its startup and now with a grant to
    expand, the government obviously sees potential in DerTek to drastically better
    the nation. This could reshape society and grow and influence other nations
    across the globe with similar investments and opportunities, even just influencing
    individuals to make change themselves.

    Education is very important to Diaz, and he speaks about this and its key to change. I feel the root of this amazing idea and company belongs to his own education, and this
    should inspire educational change and improvement to enable and empower young
    people to learn and grow in knowledge. With more investment in education, I can
    only see a correlating spike in the betterment of our world through ideas and
    innovation.

  • JonathanSimon

    This story can be summarized as someone who works very hard to achieve success. It is crazy how Diaz goes from making less than six cents a week to creating a company that employs about one million farm workers. I liked how Diaz has an entrepreneurial mindset as he sold homework answers in elementary school and pushed a snack cart around campus to pay for his university. I would like to know how Diaz knew that the castor oil plant would be raw material he needed to use as biofuel and how he got the initial funding for his company.

    I like how Diaz created this company in order to reduce pollution in Mexico because it is a significant issue now. How did Diaz get enough money to purchase 700 hectares of land while paying his employees? Why did it take two years to finally get a grant from the government and what obstacles were faced on the way? Also how much equity percentage does Diaz currently have his company?

    This company is so great because of all the benefits it has to offer. First of all, Diaz is creating thousands of jobs that lasts for 10 months out of the year and these jobs are staying in Mexico. These people who are choosing to stay home and work rather than fleeing abroad is ultimately helping the economy. What are the specific details in the plan to expand significantly? How much revenue will Diaz be able to bring in with the factory in Oaxaca of over 2,000 hectares? It is also very interesting how Diaz is allocating 20% of all revenue back to the farmers to further help them improve their lives. Diaz could have just hired many people, expand the factories, and bring in a lot of revenue, but he is more focused on creating a social and environmental change because change is very important to him.

  • Christopher Duda

    What immediately caught my interest about this article was
    the focus on agriculture. I have grown up around it, so the subject has always
    interested me. It seems that Mr. Diaz’s entrepreneurial mindset was developed
    very early on in his life. I love how he found an interest in biofuel
    technology and actively pursued it. He clearly had a passion for it. Mr. Diaz
    must be an incredibly talented individual to both be able to develop a catalyst
    that drastically reduces the production cost of the fuel, as well as being able
    to build a business around the idea. These are very different talents. So I
    wonder, how was Mr. Diaz able to successfully build a business around this
    catalyst? Yes he was recognized for his business skills, but it takes more than
    talent to succeed. Who were the individuals around his that helped Mr. Diaz
    build a company as large as DerTek?

    What resonated most with me about this article are the
    implications of the company Mr. Diaz created. He provides employment for
    thousands of his fellow citizens, a social issue that has drawn particular interest
    in the public eye of America lately. This employment reduces the drive that
    individuals have to risk their lives just for the chance of being employed elsewhere.
    Unfortunately with agriculture, there are only so many months out of the year
    when labor is needed. Mr. Diaz’s implementation of intercropping almost
    entirely solves this issue.

    Another implication is the reduction of toxic emissions into
    the air from burning the castor oil plant. Finding a viable use for something
    an insignificant as a weed with no use whatsoever is an impressive undertaking.
    As the article states, Mexico has had many issues dealing with air pollution so
    any reduction in it will surely be helpful.

    I am very interested to see how Mr. Diaz’s venture fares in
    the future. His success in earning a significant grant from the Mexican
    government clearly shows that he has won their faith. I love that Mr. Diaz was
    able to use his technology and talents to help solve both social and
    environmental issues. The issues of pollution and access to employment both resound
    with me, and are issues I wish to help solve. I hope for the best for Mr. Diaz
    and DerTek.

  • Joseph

    I find this story to be very inspirational in that it shows how one person can work towards providing opportunity for many in his home community that are in need. It enjoyed seeing Mr. Diaz’s journey from working on the farm with his grandfather, to studying chemical engineering with an interest in biodiesel production. This shows that you can improve yourself no matter what your prior circumstances were or where you came from. In particular, I find his interest in biodiesel production to be very interesting in that he was able to further link this research to his past be remembering the weeds on his grandfather’s farm, and of how they could be used as the raw material needed to fuel his new company. This shows that you can use every resource available to you in order to succeed, as did Mr. Diaz with the weeds that everyone had previously though were just a useless crop that needed to be discarded. I also find Mr. Diaz’s goals of providing employment and reducing pollution to be very admirable, since as the article states, most workers in this region of Mexico had previously been inclined to flee the area in order to find employment elsewhere. Through DerTek, these dislocated workers have the opportunity to find work locally, and do not have to leave their families to find employment in other regions or even other countries.
    Some questions I have concerning this venture are include what kind of regulations does DerTek have to follow in regard to reducing pollution in the area? Do they need to work with the local government at all or are they able to act mostly on their own with limited red tape? Also, are there any plans for DerTek to get involved in other industries other than biofuel? I know that the article mentions that the company plans to allocate 20% of its earnings towards helping the community and other local farmers, but I just wanted to know if they plan to broaden their reach by breaking into other high demand industries.

  • Lauren Aulabaugh

    This story is amazing. Jonatan’s solution is very profound and it makes me wonder what other solutions lay right below our eyes. It amazes me what kind of entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that some people have and it inspires me to look a bit deeper into my daily life to see what problems I can solve with what I have. Jonatan is truly an inspiration. He was so driven to create a cleaner source of energy, and ended up changing Mexico’s future fuel industry as a whole. It would be amazing if more people were able to have such a passion for change and such an entrepreneurial ambition as Jonatan’s. The world would see so much more innovation in aspects of society and ecosystems.

    I love how important giving back is to Jonatan. The fact that he wants to give back 20% of his revenues to his farmers for their own creations of community projects is so touching. It gives more individuals opportunities to pursue their own ventures and change the world in their own way. It’s amazing how he acknowledges how some of his farmers live in poverty and how he cares so deeply for them to want to relieve them of financial hardship. I think that’s another important facet of social entrepreneurship that is very important that Jonatan incorporates into his business regimen. Not only are you able to improve your own life and society together when you pursue such social ventures, but you’re also able to improve the lives of your employees and people you work close with. Jonatan is doing great things and I’m excited to see what more he does for society in the future.

  • Tyler Marquez

    I find this story to be truly an inspiration. Seeing how
    Diaz was able to overcome poverty and create a company that uses what would
    have been waste and turning into clean energy is amazing. Diaz is the perfect
    example of a social entrepreneur. He was able to find a problem, which in this
    case was air pollution, and create a solution that is sustainable. Diaz’s ability
    to impact his community in such a way is what excites me about social
    entrepreneurship the most. I want to be able to have such an impact on
    communities in a similar fashion. I think Diaz found an excellent innovation to
    clean energy that can significantly benefit rural communities and the
    environment. I was very shocked to learn just how big of an issue air pollution
    is. 1700 deaths in Mexico City due to air pollution yearly is insane. This
    issue deserves much more attention than it receives. I cannot fathom living in
    polluted air that is so dangerous. Up until now, I was completely unaware such
    an issue existed.

    I am curious as to how many other plants/weeds there are out
    there that can be used in a similar way to create biofuel. I would like to know
    more about what exactly is it about the castor plant that makes it an excellent
    weed for biofuel production. If we can treat many weeds/ waste plants in a
    similar way, we have the potential to put a huge dent in air pollution in the
    future. It is now more important than ever that we start finding ways combat
    our impact on the Earth. I am delighted to learn about different ways social entrepreneurs are able to create innovation that impacts the world like this. This article was informational and well written. Thank you for posting this.