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.

Locals install the foldable solar panels from a Mama SolarTurtle

To resolve the transfer of the ownership issue, we first considered using the social business model. By starting a community business instead of just solving the problem by throwing technology. The idea is, if the technology generates an income, then a value will be associated with the solution, and it will be protected. A business requires more than just technology and a good business model – you require a passion for the businesses before you can truly call it your own. If you invest time in your business, it is more likely to succeed. So, we found existing passionate traders and hooked them to our concept of the renewable energy business. Always try and help people that are already trying to help themselves. Passion cannot be bought!

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.

One of the first turtlepreneurs in Lesotho using SolarTurtle to light up her kiosk along with storing cold water, drinks an charging mobile phones

With this in mind, we produced Mini SolarTurtles for the Lesotho highlands as part of the EU commissions program to empower women entrepreneurs with renewable energy. Each community kiosk can power around 200 local ICT devices, lights, and sell home solar kits. We implemented ten projects here supporting over 2,000 people living in energy poverty in very remote areas. These light-weight, 3kW units cost around R120,000 (€7,500) to produce. Reducing the safety aspects made the solar kiosk more affordable, but we didn’t want to exclude lower-income households from the green energy revolution only because they needed extra protection. Bringing down the price tag was vital before rolling out these solar kiosks as it allowed financial mechanisms like micro-lending or “Stokvel” community lending schemes.

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.

Our observations from previous community projects showed: charging phones is the most important revenue generator in this kind of business model. However, standing in the open with phones makes this business more susceptible to crime. We mitigated this risk by charging power banks instead of mobile phones.  Customers arrive at the kiosk and swap a discharged power bank battery for a fully charged one and later can charge their phones in their pockets. They just need to register at the kiosk to get their first power bank and pay a monthly fee of R150 (€9) to allow them daily access at the kiosk. With no phones on display, the security risks were reduced and customers didn’t need to queue up waiting for their phones to charge. SolarTurtle energy kiosks are reducing in size and costs to allow more turtlepreneurs to start their own renewable energy enterprise.

James demonstrating the use of Baby SolarTurtle to charge mobile phones

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.

James van der Walt is a social entrepreneur and engineer from South Africa, who quit his job as a software engineer in Ireland striving to do something more meaningful with his life. In 2012 he moved back to South Africa and founded SolarTurtle, a social business with the vision to provide energy solutions to underserved people in South Arica. He took the basic business concept to Stellenbosch University to research and develop it. In 2013 he completed his Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering specializing in renewable energy. The product of his thesis is SolarTurtle, a secure and mobile solar kiosk.  With support from government and university research funding, he raised enough to build a prototype. He won the empowering people. Award in 2016 and today his enterprise serves remote communities in South Africa and Lesotho.

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