The SolarTurtle with panels folded out.
The SolarTurtle with panels folded out.
Batteries recharging inside the SolarTurtle. Batteries recharging inside the SolarTurtle.
Batteries recharging inside the SolarTurtle. Batteries recharging inside the SolarTurtle.

Cape Town - A local off-grid power station that looks a little like a UFO selling electricity by the bottle, and a computer game designed to teach the community how to run it as a business. Does that sound like life in a sci-fi movie or in the rural Eastern Cape to you?

The first SolarTurtle, a container with fold-away solar panels that will open a world of micro business opportunities for rural communities, hatched (or landed, perhaps) at a school deep in the rural Eastern Cape in June. A computer game teaching people who are not on the power grid how to run the solar unit as a business is still in James van der Walt’s head… but groundbreaking ideas germinated there tend to make it to reality.

Van der Walt is a 30-something mechanical engineer and software programmer who returned to South Africa a few years ago after living and working abroad for seven years with ideas to start a business that would make a difference. He had found himself working in the financial sector in Ireland after following an Irish lady home one day (all the way to Galway). Like so many in his generation, he found himself searching for meaning in his career beyond work, spend, save, retire.

His search for meaning led via a long and winding road to the Eastern Cape where today members of a rural community take large recycled plastic containers to a solar station to buy their energy by the bottle. The plastic bottles have been turned into rechargeable batteries that are charged during the daylight hours to be taken home in the evening to add light, heat, sound and etc to people’s lives. The bottles, holding traditional rechargeable batteries and with their lid transformed into a socket, are easy to carry.

Van der Walt remembers sitting on a ferry to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland one day looking at a steel plaque noting that the vessel that felt like it was being tossed about lightly on the sea weighed 40,000 tons. That must take a lot of energy, he thought. Add to that two other current hot topics that were on his mind: the financial crisis, which had put a lot of people out of work, and the energy crisis facing most countries. It was at that confluence, he says, that the idea for the SolarTurtle was born.

Then it wasn’t much more than a ray of hope that was to grow into the SolarTurtle. For reasons that are both simple and complicated, Van der Walt moved from Ireland to New Zealand. It was here that he had his next eureka moment after thinking, “There seem to be no problems here; this might not be the right place for me to settle if I want to make a difference in the world.”

All the while the ideas from that day on the ferry were rolling about in his head and an idea started forming around harnessing the power of nature to meet some of the obvious needs of man. Van der Walt started making enquiries about moving back to South Africa and the next thing you know he was here working on a business plan. It was then that a friend suggested he contact universities for help with research. He contacted the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University and the response was so positive that he ended up doing a masters in mechanical engineering at the school.

“This not only gave me the opportunity to study the problems faced by rural electrification first hand, but also to have access to some of the country’s leading experts on renewable energy and mechanical design,” says Van der Walt, who says he couldn’t have done it without the support of the school and particularly Professor Wikus van Niekerk.

Once he had the support of the university Van der Walt started to transform his ideas into action. Visiting communities who had no access to power, he quickly discovered that one of the main problems with rolling out a solar solution was theft and vandalism. More often than not, solar panels were stolen, with travelling syndicates of thieves disappearing in the night with equipment installed in remote areas.

It was then that Van der Walt realised that this was why shipping containers were being used as spaza shops. Another eureka moment, another stage in the plan. With some financial help from the South African National Energy Development Institute, the Technology Innovation Agency and the Department of Science and Technology, Van der Walt got his idea off the ground and on to the ground, with the first SolarTurtle starting to sell clean electricity at Ngangonwandle High School on June 15.

Ngangonwandle, 50km from Coffee Bay, is the largest school in the district with more than 2 000 learners, none of whom had electricity at home. Potential customers, you might say, making for a viable business proposition, in Van der Walt’s words. The local community was delighted to be introduced to the concept of buying electricity by the bottle.

The need for electricity in the region is dire, says Van der Walt. As if to prove the point, he says, a while after the unit launched, Eskom cut off the whole region’s power for two days due to problems at the local substation. During this time the SolarTurtle was the only place people in the wider area could get electricity and more than R2 500 worth of trade was done at the unit. “We could not have asked for a better opening day gift,” says Van der Walt.

Another gift has been the entrepreneur who runs the first SolarTurtle, a local woman, Lungelwa Tyali, who recently moved back to her ancestral home after working as an executive in Johannesburg for many years. In addition to selling clean power, she is trying many things to make her business work, for example an internet cafe, offering refrigeration services, as well as allowing a barber to set up shop. One can only imagine the opportunities for sales of goods, services and entertainment.

But what about the computer game to teach people how to run the business, I hear you wonder. When I suggested that it seems obvious that demand for the SolarTurtle units would soon outstrip supply, Van der Walt tells me that one of the big problems with rolling these units out is training people how to make a success of them. He stresses that this is not a hand-out, it is a business opportunity.

There are possibilities of tie-ups with international organisations and companies that are producing energy under the country’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, but Van der Walt’s real focus now seems to be making the units work as micro-franchises, viable individual businesses that are supplying clean energy to their communities.

The software engineer in Van der Walt takes over here and asks me if I know what gamification is. He tells me he is going to write a software programme, a game, where people will “play the business”. Real life situations of a SolarTurtle owner will be simulated in the game, which people will play as a way of learning what is required. The game will also give Van der Walt a way of measuring people’s potential and suitability.

Van der Walt came up with this idea because, he says, people are less motivated by the idea of money than the immediate gratification of a computer game, especially people who have been off the grid for most of their lives. Now that sounds like a lovely and empowering game!

ANA