iShack delivers power (and television) to the people

Road to a better life: The iShack initiative has brought electricity to hundreds of people in Enkanini. (David Harrison, M&G)

Road to a better life: The iShack initiative has brought electricity to hundreds of people in Enkanini. (David Harrison, M&G)

If you are poor and living in an informal settlement in South Africa, housing is a waiting game – if you qualify, that is. According to the most recent census data, more than three million people live in shacks in informal settlements, which equates to about 1.2-million households throughout the country. And the government’s subsidised low-cost housing programme – which has built more than 2.8-million houses since 1994 – struggles and fails to keep up, with a backlog of more than two million houses.

Some people who were promised houses 20 years ago are still waiting. The average waiting time is about eight years, depending on which province you live in.

Mark Swilling, academic head of the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, says that, in 2011, he sat down with his students and asked: “‘What can be done while people are waiting?’ We wanted to orientate [our research] towards what the average shack dweller could do while they are waiting for the state.”

This gave birth to the iShack, a retrofitted, ecologically designed shack, developed and tested by Andreas Keller, a former master’s student.

With master’s and doctoral candidates undertaking research into sustainable sanitation, water, electricity and infrastructure, the institute produced the first iShack, a shiny metal structure standing slightly apart from the other shacks in Enkanini, near Stellenbsoch, in the Western Cape.

But the main feature of the iShack that gained traction in the township, which has anywhere between 5 000 and 9 000 people crammed together on hilly terrain, is electricity.

Understanding what is needed Damian Conway, director and manager of the Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab, a special purpose vehicle to implement the iShack project, says that part of their research methodology was co-production with the community and understanding what they needed, “rather than telling them what they need”.

There are many examples of failed technology drop-offs in poor states, often in Africa, and the reason often cited for their failure is that international development agencies do not properly understand what locals actually need to improve their livelihoods.

An abandoned fish factory in Turkana, Kenya, is a good example. In the 1980s, the Norwegian development agency set up a multimillion-dollar project on the shores of Lake Turkana to process fish. But the local Turkana people are semi-nomadic and value cattle as a status symbol. This meant that the factory failed very soon after it opened.

“Electricity is the number one thing that most people in Enkanini say they need,” says Conway. “The needs are all there: sanitation, water … but the main thing is energy.” So the project’s attention began to crystallise on sustainable electricity provision rather than altering the structure of the shacks.

In 2011, the National Research Foundation funded the research and training of postgraduate students, through Stellenbosch University’s TsamaHUB (Transdisciplinary Sustainability Analysis, Modelling and Assessment Hub). A cash injection of $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 the government’s Green Fund, with a target to supply electricity to 1?500 households.

Now many shacks in Enkanini have solar panels on their roofs. Inside each of these shacks is a distribution box, the length of an outstretched arm, with wire casings leading out of it to two lights, an external security light, a cellphone charger and a television set.

All of this is provided by Specialized Solar Solutions in George, using its DC micro-grid technologies. The company produces “small, stand-alone, off-grid solar home systems that can provide a scalable amount of electricity”, Conway says.

Swilling, who is also head of sustainable development at Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership, emphasises that the equipment does not belong to the shack dweller: “We don’t want to sell equipment. Users treat it as infrastructure … the solar panel … is part of the [township’s infrastructure], like your road, pylons, cables. They don’t belong to you, but without them you wouldn’t get services.”

And for R150 a month, the user has access to electricity. A SIM card in the distribution box allows the project to control the energy access remotely, and switch it off if a user does not pay or defaults on his or her monthly payments.

Conway reiterates that the iShack is “not a house or product, or even just an energy service”. “It is an attempt to develop a sustainable social enterprise model for delivering affordable, incremental services to residents of informal settlements.”

The keyword here is “sustainable”.

An important part of the project involves recognising the value of existing informal settlements, and upgrading them.

Existing social networks
“What incremental upgrading translates to is a recognition that an informal settlement is an asset with existing social networks. Where possible, it makes sense to try and upgrade those existing communities in situ, rather than moving them to some piece of land … [that is] likely to be far away from economic opportunities,” Conway says. “How can you deliver a service [and] multiply that [in terms of] jobs and social networks?

“We want to train locals to do much of the work: installations, maintenance, client management,” Conway says. “Green technologies – which are often ‘human scale’ and off-grid and don’t rely on massive enabling infrastructure [and] backbones – are often very well suited to local job creation and skills development without requiring long-term formal training and certification to meet demanding regulation standards,” he says, adding that the solar systems run on 12V direct current, and so there is no risk of electrocution.

      David Giyose, an Enkanini field agent
David Giyose, an Enkanini field agent, likes his job because it means he has the opportunity to serve his community. (David Harrison, M&G)

Daniel Giyose, a 47-year-old man with a wife and three children, who lives in Enkanini, is one of the first iShack field agents.

He has lived in the township for nine years. At the beginning of the project, “we had to market [the technology]. The first time we brought the iShack to the attention of the community, we had to show them how this system works, and do the marketing before [we could do] the installation.”

“Now, marketing isn’t a problem – [the community] knows how the system works [as] it has been here for two years now. The most challenging job is installing [the system] and maintenance.”

There is a rollover of field agents, but Conway does not see this as a problem: “People coming through the project, getting training, working on it for a while, and then perhaps moving on is a more realistic way of building capacity to sustain the project.”

To meet the target, the field agents need to install between 30 and 70 systems a month, as well as undertake maintenance and deal with clients’ concerns.

“It’s challenging because some of them [the new field agents] are still in training, but they’re getting better,” Giyose says. Each iShack agent has the system installed in their home because “you must know exactly how it functions”.

Giyose, who was a security guard before he joined the project, says that he prefers the iShack work to his previous job, even though it is “stressful work”, especially with the mass roll-out, because “what I like to do is serve my community … we’re rendering a service because they need it”.

TV licenses
The R150 that users pay each month goes towards maintenance, agents’ commission (between R3 500 and R5 700 a month), battery replacements and a TV licence. Conway chuckles: “We’re probably the first organisation to pay for TV licences in an informal settlement.”

Asked why the iShack offering includes a television, Swilling says that it creates commitment on the part of the user. “If people just had lights and ran out of money, they’d return to candles,” he says.

This holds true in the interviews with iShack users, whose comments were made anonymously. When asked whether having the iShack system installed in their homes had improved their quality of life, most users who had children said it helped them because it stopped their children from “wandering around” the settlement; instead they were at home, watching cartoons.

One woman said that watching the news on television allowed her to “have a say” when discussing national issues at work.

Another woman said that she was glad her family had the iShack electricity system because her husband watched soccer at home instead of going to the shebeen. Although some people mentioned increased safety because they no longer used candles and paraffin, they almost universally praised the televisions.

Each iShack system, with distribution box, panels and television, costs about R7 000 and the users’ payments cover maintenance.

“Our principle is that the state must pay for infrastructure,” Swilling says, which happened through the Green Fund allocation. “Second is that the user must pay something towards the cost. The third is that the free basic electricity subsidy [R44 a month], which you only qualify for if you are connected to the grid, should be allocated to shack dwellers who are not able to connect to it [but can access the iShack system].”

According to Conway, the iShack project is in negotiations with the Stellenbosch municipality to “allocate the subsidy to renewable projects in a way that is compliant with procurement procedures”. Stellenbosch municipality confirmed that these discussions were happening.

Asked whether there had been problems with theft of the infrastructure, Conway says that no panels had been stolen but a few televisions and batteries were pilfered. The idea is that, “as we scale up, the community vigilance grows”.

Signing up with a neighbour
The project encourages people to sign up with a neighbour, Swilling says. “There is the assumption that there is a sense of watchfulness, that people understand it’s yours, that you pay for it and no one is giving it to you, and that if you [steal] it, it is stealing.”

Even in the midst of a mass roll-out, with the project installing six systems a day, Conway is looking to the future, saying that the team is trialling the inclusion of fridges in the system.

Asked whether they are going to launch the iShack electricity supply system in other informal settlements around South Africa, he says: “The institute is not about running an energy business – we’re about research, innovation, trying things out.

“We’re not really social entrepreneurs,” Swilling says. “We see ourselves as knowledge partners.”

Slum Dwellers International, a global organisation that focuses on the needs of the urban poor, is eyeing the project for replication. The secretariat co-ordinator of Slum Dwellers International, Joel Bolnick, who is based in South Africa, says: “Our intention is to give the institute some time to develop the model. They’re almost there now.”

He says the organisation will “certainly take this model in some form … probably make some adjustments and then try to scale it [while making] sure that it is contextually driven”.

Asked whether the organisation is thinking about rolling it out in other South African informal settlements, Bolnick says that, although it is running two pilots in informal settlement in Ruimsig in Johannesburg and Philippi in Cape Town with about 100 units, Slum Dwellers International’s focus is “mainly international, mainly in Africa”.

“The issue in countries where you have reasonable infrastructure [such as South Africa] and strong state support is that you have to be careful that solar energy doesn’t take the state off the hook, so that they say: ‘We don’t have to worry about the informal sector.’

“We will roll it out in South Africa if we can leverage state support, but we would probably want to roll it out more aggressively in other countries.”

Sarah Wild’s trip to Stellenbosch forms part of her research for a book project that will be published this year by the Gordon Institute of Business Science and Pan Macmillan South Africa

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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