Birth of Baby SolarTurtle for Secure and Sustainable Energy
The last blog Collaborating in a Sea of Unknowns by epAward 2016 winner and epNetwork member James van der Walt gave an insight into surviving in a competitive business environment. Let’s take a ride with him to follow his entrepreneurial journey of setting up a successful social enterprise in Africa and discover the bumps and milestones he experienced along the way.
Back in 2012 when SolarTurtle was started, the premise was very simple: use renewable energy to create a commodity that is used by everyone particularly communities in South Africa deprived of uninterrupted power supply. Then utilize the income generated from selling the electricity to create sustainability. Of course, the problem is more complex than just putting some solar panels in a community and consider it to be fixed! First, there is the issue of ownership transfer, followed by rampant crime and vandalism prevalent in South Africa. The third is the issue of scalability – how to keep pushing for universal energy access? Fourthly is the lack of capital! Of course, there are many more challenges, but these are some of the main issues we grappled with while designing the SolarTurtle business model.
Next, we had to consider the local conditions – like high crime levels. Solar panels and batteries are typically stolen or broken long before their natural expiry date. The obvious solution was to heighten security. The foldaway solar containers (Mama SolarTurtles) provided the security needed to weather the harsh conditions. Unfortunately, security measures came at a price which meant less-privileged communities would struggle to afford it. A fully operational 3kW container costs around R450,000 (€30,000) to build.
Then we needed to consider scalability. We wanted to make solar-powered kiosks affordable so more turtlepreneurs (entrepreneurs using the SolarTurtle energy micro-franchise) can join the green revolution. An option to bring down costs was to reduce security. The simplest option was to ignore areas with a high crime rate. By using lighter material like fibreglass and aluminium the manufacturing costs and delivery cost were reduced.
This meant turtlepreneurs can finance these units themselves, so we came up with the Baby SolarTurtle model, that is light-weight and affordable like the Mini Turtles, but still foldable and mobile, like the Mama Turtle containers. However, unlike a Mama Turtle that carries her own hard shell, the Baby Turtles rely on local infrastructure and smart business models for survival. This is done by folding away the kiosk at night and taking it home and keeping it indoors. During the day the kiosk can be moved to any location to serve local communities with green power for their phones and ICT devices. These units can be produced for R25,000 (€1,500) which means more Turtlepreneurs can finance their own green energy businesses. Unfortunately, by reducing the weight and cost: these units can only charge phones, but not power a fridge.
The Mama SolarTurtles are still useful for customers that can afford the security and the mobility of containers. In 2017, we produced South Africa’s solar-powered Nedbank Branch in a container for rural communities. However, the Mini and Baby SolarTurtles offer affordability and wider reach by lighting up African homes and creating green jobs. With a wider range of products, we can serve the energy needs of enterprises in the formal and informal sector. From the haves to the have-nots: SolarTurtle has the energy platform to suit the businesses for off-grid deployments. In South Africa we work in the Eastern Cape region impacting around 2,000 lives if not more! Mostly school kids have benefited from our community projects.