Lighting up rural South Africa with SolarTurtle
In urban areas, with a flick of a switch, we can easily charge our mobile phones, connect to the internet and turn on our electrical devices. In more rural off-grid areas, however, the situation is trickier due to lack of infrastructures and resources. SolarTurtle helps to alleviate the problem with their off-grid solar power stations which local female entrepreneurs are trained to operate. Through providing electricity to off-grid schools, the project eases access to education and enhances health conditions in rural areas by providing an alternative to harmful sources of energy like kerosene and paraffin.
Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, James Van der Walt tell us how being on a ferry and a monastery inspired the founding of his eco-inclusive business idea. These days, they’re busy with SANEDI working on developing Baby Turtles which would be smaller, cheaper versions of their original prototype.
SolarTurtle team: James van der Walt (CTO), Lungelwa Tyali (CEO), Candice Paulin (Project Manager), Charlene Barnes (COO), Hermia Daziel (Project Administrator)
SEED: Can you tell us about what SolarTurtle is working on at the moment?
James: We recently got a contract with energy development agency SANEDI which allows us to start constructing Baby Turtle kiosks. These are iterations of our original ‘Mama’ Turtles; bigger solar kiosks hosted in shipping containers with solar panels that fold away at night. They are bigger and more expensive, costing about €30,000 to set up. The Baby Turtles are smaller, portable and can be brought indoors at night to prevent theft.
We’ve also been installing kiosks for the EU Commission in Lesotho. Another project we are embarking is e-learning so we can train more Turtle entrepreneurs virtually. This will enable us to scale, as right now we are personally training all entrepreneurs.
SEED: How did you identify the business opportunity, and why you decide to pursue an eco-inclusive business?
James: The first inspirational point came from when I was sitting on a ferry in Ireland, and realising how much power the ocean was using to drive forward the ferry. This made me think about the huge potential of renewable energies. That was during the 2009 recession where there was massive unemployment in Ireland. At the same time, the rest of the world was also facing a climate crisis and an energy crisis. My idea at that time was “why don’t we kill three birds with one stone?”
I started with prototypes for wave generators, and then looking into wind generators, and then solar which is the most versatile because you can harvest it from the sun everywhere.
Second is a more philosophical aspect of my inspiration. Our planet is very masculine dominated and I think that is partly to blame for the situation humanity is in. Masculine energy is good in getting us from point A to B, where the ends justify the means. But we also need a softer touch. We need to bring feminine aspects of humanity back into balance. How you play the game is just as important as winning. Winning isn’t everything. This is why we need to give access to renewable energy to women, so that future wealth falls into the hands of women at the grassroots level who serve the communities. It is a complete shift in the economy.
James: I thought about how I was living a pretty comfortable life in Ireland at that time. I was doing what I know, working in IT, doing what my parents used to do. This really irritated me and I wanted to change something in my life.
Seeking change, I decided to move to New Zealand for new scenery. But before I realised it I was having a boring flat-white and going for interviews at software companies. I was on the other side of the world, but nothing has changed. So I took some time off at a monastery and decided to try and figure out what I wanted.
While in New Zealand, I had this weird dream where I was standing at a rooftop overlooking fighting happening at the bottom, and I realised I was in Libya [laughs]. I asked the people “Why are you guys still fighting about the oil? There are so many other options why don’t you do something with those?” And the guy looked at me and said: “Well, what have you done?”
SEED: Oh wow!
James: Yeah, I woke up startled. This is so typical of a lot of people; we are always waiting for someone else to save the world and not ourselves. At that point, I made the decision to move back to South Africa to work on my renewable energy idea.
Unlocking the Container SolarTurtle
SEED: Where did the idea for the Turtles come from?
James: When working on our prototype, we got invited by the Department of Science and Technologies and the Department of Education in South Africa to look at the problems facing rural schools. These schools were too far removed from the national grid and they struggle to connect to ICT services for e-learning. The government was giving out tablets to replace textbooks. But without electricity, they can’t power the tablets and the kids end up with no textbooks.
We visited about 12 schools and saw that the common problem was the same. The government came, gave them solar panels, which would then get stolen. That’s when I realised technology on its own will not solve the problem here; we’d have to solve security issues as well.
I visited some informal settlements where I saw local traders operating out of shipping containers, which made it easy to lock up when needed until the violence has gone away. This was where the idea for the original SolarTurtle came about – a turtle with a hard shell to go into when it is unsafe and when it’s safe again you come back out. After our first prototype, we went through several iteration processes with our model and we made a smaller version, the Mini Turtles – which are fibreglass kiosks with fixed mounted panels.
SEED: And today?
James: Right now we are working on an even smaller version, the Baby Turtle. This is inspired by the hermit crab, so the solar pack can be small enough to carry home at the end of the day, to avoid thefts. Furthermore, because these would cost a fraction of the original SolarTurtle price, the entrepreneurs would be eligible for microloans. The banks are also more willing to lend because the risks are not too big. This is a model we are trying to test, to get banks and social investors excited about these types of business models.
SEED: How do you recruit the entrepreneurs you work with and how do you engage with the community?
James: We mainly work in communities that do not have access to electricity. Schools in the communities are often economic hotspots where women sell sweets and food. We approach these women traders as they are already active and trading goods. We’d invite them to our training and take the top performers as entrepreneurs for SolarTurtle.
The entrepreneurs would bring a deposit of about 10-20% of the total capital cost to show they are committed, and additional investment will be sourced from investors. The entrepreneurs then pay monthly rent and this allows investors to recuperate their investments to put money back into community projects.
SolarTurtle installed in a local off-grid school
SEED: Can you tell us a little about your team as well?
James: The team is growing. There are three of us directors; we have Charlene who is the COO who has been with us from the start and has been financing me. She is also my girlfriend.
SEED: [Laughs] Does it work, working together?
James: Yes it does. For us anyway. Someone has to finance the poor entrepreneur when they’re not making a profit yet [laughs]. Later Lungi joined us when we installed the first solar panels in the school. Lungi is the current CEO, and she was with Ericsson before. Now she promotes the business and does the PR, I do the engineering work, Charlene looks after the processes, and makes sure we get all the work done and stay focused.
SEED: So it’s been almost 10 years of SolarTurtle, could you share a highlight and a lowlight from the past years?
James: The hardest is when we were not getting through to the next steps.
Last year (2018), I said to Lungi “this is my last year, if we do not make it by the end of next year, I will move on.” The end of the year came and went, and nothing really happened. I decided to try to find a normal job to get an income again.. I was just about to sign a new job contract, and you wouldn’t believe this, on the same day I was about to sign, an hour before that, the SANEDI contract came through.
SEED: Oh, wow! Interesting isn’t it?
James: Yes, they always say that perseverance is important for entrepreneurs - to just keep going. You never know when the aces will appear, they might be at the bottom of the pack.
SEED: Was that also your highlight?
James: Definitely, this was a big highlight. It’s great when the team is excited over the work we do, and this also gets the community excited. But I have big goals; I want to get this (SolarTurtle) to run independently (from government and big buy-ins) and then, I can step back.
The Mini SolarTurtle, a lightweight fibreglass energy kiosk fitted with solar PV with trading space for vendors.
SEED: How did the SEED Award help you navigate these challenges?
James: The support we got from SEED helped land the big contract with SANEDI. The workshops helped, but what was most helpful was the financial mentorship from Div de Villiers. The SolarTurtle team comes from a marketing and engineering background and so to get a mentor from a financial background was really helpful. We received support in developing a financial proposal, cash flow diagrams and insurance and escalation – all which we would have had a hard time figuring out without his mentorship through SEED.
SEED: SolarTurtle emphasizes providing training and supporting local women to be entrepreneurs. What effect and stories have you seen from your focus on women?
James: Generally especially in traditional rural communities women stay home to raise kids, and men go to the city to earn money. This spills over to young people, who copy what they see. If we can create women entrepreneurs, then that whole stigma gets challenged.
SEED: What else can you share about doing what you do in a challenging environment?
James: Firstly, partnerships are important. You can’t solve a country’s problem if you’ve only lived there for a few months. You need a partner that can help you understand the political atmosphere, the culture, what people feel and how they live. You need locals to be implementing partners. For example, I am a city boy. I have never lived off the grid. I need someone who has a first-person perspective and experience of the problem.
Another advice is to be able to let go of your work. It’s not always easy for engineers, because you fall in love with the designs you spent hours on. But you must be prepared to throw them away and start fresh again if needed. This is important for the iteration process.