Africa Renewables: Harnessing the sun’s power to light up rural South Africa

Electrification - power AfricaLoad shedding may be behind us, but South Africa’s energy situation leaves much to be desired.

Millions of people, mostly living in rural areas, don’t have access to electricity and are forced to rely on charcoal, paraffin and firewood.

Off-grid solar solutions have the potential to solve this issue.

South Africa may have significantly improved people’s access to electricity since 1994, but 16% of the population – 8 million men, women and children – still has no power.

One reason, besides being unable to afford electricity, is that the national grid doesn’t reach remote, rural areas.

Renewable energy can make a difference, particularly off-grid solutions that don’t require recipients to be connected to the national grid.

This market is exploding, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The 2018 Off-Grid Solar Market Trends report by Lighting Global, an initiative by the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank and the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, shows that 130 million off-grid home kits, solar kiosks and other devices have been sold across sub-Saharan Africa since 2010.

East Africa is leading the way in this regard.

One of the key players, M-Kopa, has sold more than 600 000 solar-power home kits in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda since its launch in 2011.

Its goal is to increase that number to 4 million by 2023.

South Africa has jumped on to the off-grid solar bandwagon with innovations such as Shakti Energy, Freedom Won and The Sun Exchange.

One of the latest ventures is SolarTurtle, a local manufacturer of solar-powered kiosks and containers that serve as small business premises.

CEO and founder James van der Walt said: “There is a massive off-grid solar opportunity in South Africa because the demand for electricity is growing, and because of the applicability of solar – the sun shines everywhere.

“I had the idea in 2009 when I was living in Ireland, but I only had the courage to give up my day job as a software engineer when I moved back to South Africa in 2011.”

Van der Walt said that, on his return to South Africa, he contacted the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at the University of Stellenbosch for feedback.

“They suggested I enrol in their mechanical engineering master’s programme, which I did.”

He decided to focus on off-grid solar applications after visiting 12 schools in the Eastern Cape where the departments of education, and science and technology had started rolling out tablets.

“The problem was their energy supply,” Van der Walt said.

“Government-installed solar panels had been stolen or were broken, and there were issues related to copper cable theft.

“Security is a big issue. It is a well-organised campaign that goes from school to school to steal cables and panels after school when there is no one around. They asked me to have a look at the situation, which I did,” said Van der Walt.

The first pilot container was deployed in June 2015, thanks to support from the Technology Innovation Agency, and the department of science and technology.

More opened in due course, including Nedbank’s first solar branch in Mncwasa, 60km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape in September.

“This was exciting. Not everyone sees the value of rural electrification,” said Van der Walt.

“I hope more of these contracts come our way soon. There is a business case for new markets, which are people living in informal settlements and rural areas. Many companies seem to be waking up
to this.

“We are making a difference from every direction,” he said, noting that SolarTurtle aimed to spread its wings when the time was right.

Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are countries Van der Walt wants to expand into.

“At the same time, we don’t want to lose South Africa as a market,” he said.

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