Lungiswa “Lungi” Tyali is co-founder and director of SolarTurtle, a startup company developing secure, solar containers for off-grid electrification. Image: Supplied.
JOHANNESBURG - It's a well documented fact that power and energy are crucial drivers of economic growth and development in Africa. 

However, out of the 54 countries, only seven African states have electricity access rates that exceed 50 percent and there are currently 625 million people living outside the reach of traditional distribution grids, according to leading consulting engineering firm GIBB. 

Enter Lungelwa “Lungi” Tyali, an enterprising businesswoman and one of Africa’s renewable energy pioneers. She is director and head of operations and communications at SolarTurtle, a company developing secure solar containers for off-grid electrification.

SolarTurtle was among five South African companies selected last month as finalists in the Chivas Regal Venture IV, a global social entrepreneur competition, where Lungi stood a chance to win a share of $1 million and represent the country on the international leg of the competition.

Lungi, who worked at Ericsson for six years and held an influential position and was responsible for expanding Ericsson into the Sub-Saharan market, starts by explaining that a turtle is a special reptile because it can hide in its shell if predators are around. “We wanted to apply this concept to energy security for all those hard to reach places. We design and build solar powered shipping containers that you can use as a secure mobile energy platform,” says Lungi, from eXhorha (Elliotdale) in the Eastern Cape.

Each solar container can serve as an energy platform from which small businesses such as shops, offices and banks can be operated.

Lungiswa “Lungi” Tyali is co-founder and director of SolarTurtle, a startup company developing secure, solar containers for off-grid electrification. Image: Supplied.
Above all, explains Lungi, SolarTurtle is aimed at empowering women and social businesses hoping to start “energy kiosk businesses in rural communities that don’t have power”.

“For rural electrification we convert our solar container technology into secure energy spaza shops,” she says.

Lungi continues: “These spaza shops can sell electricity anywhere in the world, securely and safely. Inside is solar battery charging station that can recharge any battery you can think of. So community members drop off their phones for recharging. It’s called a turtle for the way the system fold-away into the container for safe keeping. We live in South Africa after all and crime is an issue. We designed our energy platform to survive South Africa’s harsh realities.”

She asserts that in crime-ridden areas across Africa, traditional photovoltaic (PV) systems have failed as the solar panels are “typically stolen within a few months of deployment”.

SolarTurtle wants to make power accessible to people without the fear of losing the expensive asset to thieves.

Lungi, who runs the company with James van der Walt, who holds a masters degree in mechanical engineering specialising in renewable energy, says she became disillusioned from corporate life and wanted to  make an impact on the world. 

In 2007 she returned to her rural village of eXhorha in the former Transkei, where she grew up with the dream of making it on her own terms. Since then she has started numerous ventures but stresses that it was the renewable energy sector that really captured her attention.

Lungi, who admits to love making a difference on the planet, says her rural solar kiosk business has been operating since June 2015 and has created employment opportunities for six young people from her community.

“We hope that our energy kiosk businesses will bring light and prosperity to communities that are currently far removed from the grid. These shops create employment in the green economy and supplies locals with a secure place where they can charge their phones and buy energy efficient products like LED lights, says Lungi, adding that the kiosks are actually designed to cater for the basic electrification needs at high schools, with one container able to  provide basic power needed for e-learning, lights and also brings internet to communities. 

She says the “green source” of energy allows each container, which she calls the “Turtle”, to have a minimal impact on the environment.

The turtle is also a good substitute for paraffin lamps and not a fire hazard. Lungi says they are currently focussing on the rural Eastern Cape, specifically the Mbashe region between Mthatha and Coffee Bay.

She says they are in negotiations with the government and corporate entities for sponsorship in order to expand their footprint, and adds that they plan to Start “SolarTurtle Mozambique and Lesotho this year. We are also hoping to expand to Zimbabwe in the near future”.

Lungi states emphatically that there are 600m people living without power in Africa, of which 2m are in South Africa. 

“Yes, 2m is people is still a lot but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the rest of the continent. The energy spazas are ideal for those hard to reach places and to create jobs in the green economy. This is something that is needed everywhere and we don’t want to think small with a problem this big.”