South Africa Synthetic Oil Limited started as a state-owned fuels company in South Africa in 1950. South Africa’s coal deposits were not high enough quality to be used simply as fuel. Research had been carried out internationally to look at ways to derive fuels from low-quality coal. One of the researchers, Etienne Rousseau, became the first head of Sasol.
The company started to produce fuels from coal using, well, chemistry that I don’t pretend to understand. As the market for fuels came to be dominated by – and priced in relation to – crude oil, the company faced challenges to its profitability. So it diversified into the production of chemicals, fertilisers, solvents and all sorts of other things. It’s one of those companies that you’ve never heard of that somehow has global revenues of $21 billion a year.