Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the International Development Journal, an online journal offering a platform to engage in debate and discussions on global policies and current affairs.
South Africa’s Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab (SIIL) has developed the iShack Project in order to use solar energy and “Show how slums can be incrementally upgraded in a sustainable and socially just way.” Says David Hees, Solar Utility Manager at SIIL, “Urban informal settlements are growing rapidly in South Africa due to urbanisation and they have to wait for many years before affordable housing and basic services such as electricity can be provided. Our goal is to develop sustainable business models that support local enterprises using green technologies that can bridge the ‘waiting gap’ and relieve energy poverty in these urban slums.”
The iShack Project provides solar energy systems to residents of the Enkanini informal settlement located near Stellenbosch in South Africa’s Western Cape province. The solar systems are capable of being used for lighting, cell phone charging, powering a television and other appliances such as DVD players and radios. Clients who subscribe pay on a pay-for-use basis in addition to paying a monthly fee to ensure long term operational sustainability.
Importantly, the iShack Project recognises the importance of identifying and training local entrepreneurs, known as “iShack Agents” who can install and provide maintenance services to customers who intend to, or have purchased the solar systems. Hees believes “Supporting local businesses and job creation is a crucial element of our social enterprise model. The iShack Agents are all local residents who are trained up on solar power basics and customer service using tablets and software to manage operations in the field.”
Given the access to energy challenges and high unemployment rates present across South Africa the importance of the iShack Project being scalable should not be underestimated. It has the potential to grow and expand in different ways including serving an increased number of customers, adding new products and services to its business offering, identifying and training additional iShack Agents.
Having received funding from the South African Government’s Green Fund, the SIIL’s vision goes beyond just providing clean, safe and affordable energy to residents of low-income township communities. While it does strive to enable access to clean, safe and affordable energy it also intends to use the iShack business model “To harness the existing capital to unlock a range of social and economic benefits and development opportunities for the community.” These could be in the form of other technologies and products that could be added to the existing business model including off-grid sanitation, ecological housing, water services and food production. Hees claims that “We are in the process of replicating our model in other urban informal settlements and besides providing solar home systems for lighting and media, we plan to include access to alternative fuels for cooking and larger PV systems to support small commercial ventures that improve services in these communities.”
The project also recently featured in Impact Amplifier’s Energy Provision at the Base of the Pyramid report as an independent solar home systems (SHS) independent company example. The report says that iShack is “an exception” in South Africa, a country where solar home SHS providers are rare. It further claims that “Overall, the iShack model has worked operationally, but needs to further prove its financial sustainability and address the remaining challenges to enhance the scalability of its business model.”
It further states that “The [iShack] business has made considerable advances on its pricing model, installation and service delivery, however [it has] faced technological challenges regarding the activation of the modules and batter life span. As technology is maturing rapidly this is considered to be a manageable problem. Acceptance by communities, initially very low, has grown substantially, but a structured engagement process is required to secure community buy in.”
Regular updates are provided about the growth and success of the iShack Project on its Facebook page.