Solar energy in a Cape Town settlement
Femi (not his real name) feels positive about the future, about taking matters into his own hands, rather than waiting for the government. In his late twenties and dressed in smart athleisure clothes, he will soon move his young family into a new home, made from corrugated iron sheets, in Qando Qando. This is part of Khayeltisha, a settlement of over a million people on the Cape Flats, sandy ground on the edge of Cape Town: a place for those who have no other place in the city. He says he is fed up with living with his parents in another Khayelitsha neighbourhood, in a ‘backyard settlement’: an informal shelter behind his landlord’s house, where his landlord exploits him, overcharging for rent and electricity. Being poor is expensive.
Femi is an Uber Eats delivery bike rider. Business has been bad recently, with the Covid pandemic and so many people struggling to make ends meet. Some days he makes only four deliveries, which is not enough to live on. His bike isn’t safe in the settlement either, he must park it with a relative and walk home. An entrepreneur in the making, he can see a future in which he owns and runs bikes and employs young men like him to make deliveries.
I met Femi as he was signing up to a mini grid solar energy system in Qando Qando. Although the South African state energy provider, Eskom, has connected many settlements to the national grid, they cannot connect Qando Qando. This is because it is built — indeed much of it is self-built — on swamp land and lies beneath major power lines supplying electricity to other Khayelitsha communities. Until now the alternative to the grid is illegal hook ups, stolen electricity, that alternately collapses and surges, ruining Femi’s computer, Hi-fi, and TV. He wants a stable supply of electricity and the mini-grid is the answer.
The mini grid is part of an experimental research project in supplying power to off grid communities. This is a complex undertaking and the research team have worked with the people of Qando Qando to identify their electricity needs, decide which households might hold the grid on its property, and explore whether the community might take over its ownership and maintenance in the future. This is an intricately calibrated engineering and social science project funded by the British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. The research is led by Federico Caprotti at the University of Exeter, collaborating with partners at the University of Cape Town, and Zonka, the private company that supplies and installs the equipment[i].
The mini grid runs from steel towers, which holds solar panels and batteries for storing the power. Located with ‘host’ households, each tower is connected to 16 further households. So far there are 4 towers in Qando Qando, potentially serving 64 families with solar power. This system of mini-grids can be replicated to serve every off-grid household in this community, but this would require further funding. Zonka will try to raise the necessary investments, using the data from the research as proof that mini-grids work and serve people’s basic electricity needs. Mini-grids are well suited to dense urban living and particularly to South African patterns of urbanisation: settlements spread around infrastructure provided to formal settlements. Connector cables are only 40 metres long, and this makes them secure from vandalism and theft.
The energy supplied is clean, stable, and affordable at a cost of 150 Rand or £6 a month: essential energy at affordable prices, accessed via an app. This is enough electricity to run lights, radios, recharging phone batteries and TVs. Everyone needs to charge their phone, and it costs 5 Rand a day to use a public charger. Electricity improves the quality of life for local people. It brings light and learning. A thirteen-year-old girl told me that she now studies English, reading novels at night. Refrigeration costs more, but reduces the travel costs involved in frequent shopping for perishable fresh food. This brings benefits in improving people’s health and well-being. A daily cap ensures equal access for all households to the battery’s limited storage capacity. The South African state electricity company, Eskom, and the Cape Town municipal authorities are pleased with these developments, which provide a solution to community conflicts over stolen electricity and the accidents it causes. This system of solar electrification can be scaled up to electrify communities living remote from national grids across the continent. With current concern about climate change and decarbonising energy, mini-grids are likely to become a popular, low cost solution to energy needs world-wide.
The towers have other uses too. A Wi-Fi company is negotiating to use them as a platform for supplying cheaper Wi-Fi: a portal to the wider world, to government benefits supporting poor families, to immunisation programmes, and to weather reports that warn of the floods that wash through Qando Qando. Femi says his new living arrangements will give him and his young family some much needed privacy: ‘Thank you for coming up with this idea’. He thinks it will work.
[i] Experimenting with data driven approaches to well-being in off grid informal urban settings. Federico Caprotti (PI) and Catherine Butler (University of Exeter), and Jiska de Groot (African Climate Development Initiative, University of Cape Town) in partnership with Hendrick Schoeman and Alex Densmore from the private electricity providers, Zonka.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.