Touwsrivier Primary School pupils walk around the hydroponics farm in their school in the Western Cape.
Touwsrivier primary school has become the first of the targeted 3000 institutions in the country which are to be taken off the electricity power grid.

Situated in a small town in the Cape Winelands in the Western Cape, Touwsrivier is also on a new journey to revive its economy.

The community is also set to benefit from a hydroponics farm which was launched recently and is expected to employ 30 people.

Both projects are being implemented in the community as part of Knowledge Pele’s social impact investment strategy.

“Our objective was to identify investable opportunities in Touwsrivier so we can promote the area as an investment destination,” said Knowledge Pele’s managing director, Fumani Mthembi.

Knowledge Pele managing director Fumani Mthembi engages Touwsrivier Primary School pupils at the school’s hydroponics farm.

“Touwsrivier Primary School has now been taken off the power grid and the solar panels installed at the school will also power the hydroponics farm. It will also pay for the electricity it uses through the returns generated from its produce,” Mthembi said.

She said they were hoping to get 3000 schools off the power grid.

“This is a low-income school so it allows them to divert their budgets to core educational needs, therefore taking full advantage of the renewable energy revolution,” Mthembi said.

Stakeholders are set on reviving the economy of Touwsriver through innovative financing and going beyond the state and donations.

Touwsrivier is in the Breede Valley local municipality and has a population of more than 8100 people, according to Census 2011. The stats also indicate that there are at least 1904 households in the area.

Mthembi said despite the challenges, Touwsrivier was home to the world’s largest CPV solar plant (CPV 1).

CPV 1 is a 36MW solar plant and is one of the first 28 projects to be licensed under the renewable energy independent power producers procurement programme in 2011.

It began operating in 2014 and hired Knowledge Pele to design and implement a social investment strategy on its behalf.

Knowledge Pele uses the annual socio-economic and enterprise development spend of CPV 1 to execute a variety of programmes in the community and are implementing social impact investments to ensure that the community has something to look forward to, to work towards improving and sustaining for future generations.

“We feel like we have a unique opportunity to really transform its economy in a way that would make it self-sustaining beyond the life of CPV1,” Mthembi said.

Town manager Neville Fourie said the town suffered massively when its sole economic industry - the railway - shut operations. In 1991, Spoornet (part of Transnet, the largest freight company in the country) left town.

“The town was booming with activity and our economy as well but when Spoornet shut down services and moved out of the area, our economy suffered a huge knock.

“Banks, factories and shops closed down. This meant that people of Touwsrivier were without jobs and poverty struck. Ever since we have been struggling to revive the economy of Touwsrivier,” Fourie said.

The solar panels at Touwsriver Primary School will also power the hydroponics farm. The school will pay for its electricity use from the returns made from the farm.

“We want to ensure that the investments coming into Touwsrivier are sustainable. It is no use to give people something they will not be able to sustain in future. Touwsrivier is an investable community and is the world-leading energy community.

“Our approach to economic development is to address genuine development challenges through innovative financing to ensure that we can draw on multiple sources of funding, going beyond the state and donations,” Mthembi said.

She said the second phase would be to ensure that there was “infrastructure and industries in the community that will make Touwsrivier a self-sustaining economic hub”.

During the Touwsrivier Experience held recently, a summit was hosted where a number of stakeholders, including community members came together to discuss the town’s future.

Bruce Raw, chief strategy officer at Green Cape, said an investment was something that could change a community forever.

“Investment is starting to realise that if you put money somewhere, you often want to get more than just money back, you actually want to develop the people, the social infrastructure, you want to do something with that money because just money on its own doesn’t achieve anything,” he said.

Raw said if an investment has not had things getting better, improved the way that people live and what they have has not improved, one should ask themselves if their investment has worked for them.

Mthembi said with the two projects implemented in the community, Touwsrivier was taking its first step in what will be a series of investable opportunities in the area.

The hydroponic farm which uses a system of growing plants using water nutrient rich solution will start operating next year.

Knowledge Pele is also offering training to qualifying community members. Among the beneficiaries are the Buzzy Beez who run a knitting business.

During the Touwsrivier Experience held recently, a summit was hosted where a number of stakeholders, including community members came together to discuss the town’s future.

“You have to be encouraged to do things with your hands or machine. We are on the run and we thank Knowledge Pele for their contribution and support.

“We knit bags, mats and throws. We also make school uniform, casual and traditional attires, wedding and matric dance gowns and cosmetic bags,” said Mercia Lottering of Buzzy Beez.

Another beneficiary, Deon Meiring, said he was passionate about decor and catering.

“Knowledge Pele gave me a lot of support and ensured that I get what I needed for decor and catering. They have also printed flyers for me to promote my business better,” Meiring said.

@smashaba