iShack Proect at Ekanini, Stellenbosch
The iShack project at Ekanini in Stellenbosch is taking solar energy to the people, and over 1000 homes have been connected.

After being impressed by solar energy installations for poorer homes in the northern Drakensberg, I was delighted to discover that the biggest urban solar energy project for indigent families is nearby at Ekanini (population about 9,000) alongside Kayamandi in Stellenbosch.  The Sustainability Institute’s iShack Project has already provided electricity to over 1,000 homes.

TV in a shack
Watching TV is the most compelling reason for having electricity.

The main driver for electricity is for charging cellphones and running a TV set, and the iShack model for a 70 Watt PV panel, 100Ah battery, charge controller and charging point, 2 lights, an external security light and a TV costs R130 a month.  (It’s a 12 volt Telefunken flatscreen.)

Without the TV, it costs R80 a month, but for most people, the TV is the main reason for having electricity.

(Eskom electricity is available through “informal connections” along one edge of Ekanini, where it borders on the more established Kayamandi.  But that costs from R450 a month according to a local.)

The next step up for an iShack is a fridge, a SA-manufactured Defy, modified to run on 12 volts that costs the purchaser R4,000.  That will then require another two 100W PV panels and two batteries and costs the shackdweller R280 a month.  (Is this the best option?  My research indicates that SA-made fridges are the least energy-efficient of all, since all compressors come from the same manufacturer.  CapeInfo will still be researching that in-depth.)

David Hees, the iShack Project's sustainability manager
David Hees – Sustainable Enterprise Manager for the iShack Project

David Hees is the Sustainable Enterprise Manager responsible for iShack.  He’s only been on the job for a month, having returned after a stint in the UK where he worked as a project manager.  The thesis during his studies was on the provision of solar energy to low-income settlements so he’s completely at home in his new job.

The iShack Project is in a consolidation phase at the moment and they are not courting the media, so I was grateful for a little of his time.  The main aim now is to demonstrate that the project is sustainable in the long term.

It started in 2011, when the National Research Foundation funded the research and training of postgraduate students at Stellenbosch University.  Then, $250,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allowed the Sustainability Institute to develop the technological and funding model and upgrade about 100 shacks.  In 2013, the iShack Project received R17-million from government’s Green Fund to supply electricity to 1,500 dwellings.

An important part of the project recognises the value of existing informal settlements, and upgrading themIncremental upgrading recognises that informal settlements are an asset with existing social networks.  Locals do most of the work — installations, maintenance, client management — creating jobs and new skills.  Green technologies don’t rely on massive enabling infrastructure.

Each iShack system, with distribution box, panels, battery and television, costs about R7 000 and the users’ payments cover maintenance.  The local field agents earn between R3,500 and R5,700 a month.

All Stellenbosch municipality contributes is R60 a month per household — the value of the free basic electricity subsidy for those connected to the Eskom grid.

After having been told elsewhere how often PV panels are stolen and that solar isn’t a solution for urban areas, iShack proves this wrong.  No panels have been stolen but there has been some pilfering of batteries.  The community has taken ownership of the system.

Lindiswa Loleka
Lindiswa Loleka has had solar power since 2014

Lindiswa Loleka has been an iShack customer since 2014 and is very happy with the service.  There are a few days in mid-winter when there isn’t enough sun to power the TV but the lights still work.

Pamela at the iShack Hub
Pamela manages the iShack Hub, assisting locals with any issues and signing up new users.

The iShack Hub is where clients and potential clients go for help, and it’s open on Tuesday and Thursdays.  Pamela is in charge of the Hub and also works at the site office on other days.  The Hub is used mainly by people needing “maintenance” — flat batteries.  Pamela says a big focus is education — explaining that running the TV all day will run the battery flat.  “Users should select their shows and try to only use the TV for an hour or two a day,” she says.

Going Green is a mindset that everybody on the planet needs to embrace.

While I was walking around Ekanini, someone saw me looking at printed posters on a particularly shiny shack.  They were in Xhosa so I couldn’t understand them.  He came up to me and explained that it’s the shack of the sangoma and the posters advertise his services.

Then he showed me his (very neat) house and explained that he’d been trying to get electricity from the municipality for a long time.  “Why don’t you use the iShack service?” I asked.  He wants to use electricity for cooking, for ironing and everything in the house.  “Can you afford R500 a month?” I asked.  He looked aghast… of course not!

So Pamela at the iShack Hub is right. Education needs to be a priority.

I was impressed (as were some visitors from the USA) by what locals have achieved at Ekanini.  Sanitation — a municipal function — isn’t what it should be, but the shacks and the use of space are a third world version of the hillside villages of France, Italy and Greece.  All that’s missing is tenure, a sense of permanence and municipalities addressing their responsibilities incrementally, rather than waiting for big bang solutions.  Maybe communities — without municipal regulations — do build better communities than municipalities can ever achieve.

Patrick's Small Farm at Ekanini
Patrick’s Small Farm

As I was leaving Ekanini, someone walked up to me and asked, “Did you see my small farm?”  Yes, I had noticed it when I arrived but I obviously hadn’t given it sufficient credit as a farm.  Patrick’s Small Farm has 14 goats.  The white ones are milk goats, but too young to be giving milk yet.  (Fairview will have to watch out when Ekanini Goat Cheese hit the market! Or maybe Simonsberg Cheese — just down the road — will help this enterprise grow?)  The brown goats are meat goats.

Patrick moved to Stellenbosch from Worcester.  “It’s much more polite here.  Worcester was roff (rough).”


Stellenbosch Mayor Conrad Sidego has branded Stellenbosch as the Innovation Capital of South Africa and driven an innovation agenda, but I’m not aware that municipal officials have delivered on that in terms of housing solutions.

One of the biggest drawbacks to real environmental change in SA is the fact that most municipalities are appalling at managing people and establishing close working relationships with communities.  They are good at spending money, but they don’t get value for money.  Most municipalities in SA today are themselves not sustainable organisations in the long term.

Leaving this story’s focus of solar energy for a moment, Stellenbosch municipality says there are “service delivery challenges due to the topography and location of the settlement, resulting from the unplanned scenario.”

That sounds like an engineer speaking.  They are the bane of good urban design everywhere in SA.  If SA municipal engineers had their way, the hillside towns in France, Italy and Greece would not exist.  Engineers and planners with no design training cannot lead housing projects — they are the cause of the urban blight that exists all over SA.  The developments they build are not sustainable.  Does Stellenbosch municipality employ any professional urban designers for its housing projects?  Does it have formal (apolitical) consultative and educational processes in place?

Where is the innovation in human settlements and community building?

The iShack Project invites donations from the public to help subsidise the installation costs that end-users pay. A small donation of just R170 gives an indigent family a 50% discount on their installation fee so that they can get a solar home system in time for the cold and dark winter months. Please visit their crowd-funding page at GivenGain.

One Response

  1. this is an excellent story about an amazing project. Please keep us informed. This has an excellent balance of innovation and modern science, with the need for the benefiting public to contribute responsibly.

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