Better Living Challenge


About our Finalists: Ugesi Gold

Aug 20, 2014



Community business empowers low-income households 


Millions of people throughout Africa survive without access to a reliable supply of electricity. In South Africa alone, 3.4 million households, most of them in remote rural areas, have no formal metered electricity supply.



Many of these low-income, off-grid households are forced to rely on relatively expensive and notoriously unsafe fuels such as kerosene. True: there are various battery packs available on the market. Typically, however, many of these options are designed for relatively affluent Western consumers and run on costly, high-maintenance technology. By contrast, the SolarTurtle is specifically aimed at low-income, off-grid South African communities.


Developed by Stellenbosch-based Ugesi Gold, a social business specialising in renewable energy, the SolarTurtle is a solar-powered energy distribution point securely housed in a theft-proof shipping container. The container is fitted with a solar battery charging station capable of charging hundreds of battery packs every day. The design is completely modular, totally self-contained − and very accessible.


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Image: The SolarTurtle’s large Khaya Power battery pack with some accessories 


Better still, each SolarTurtle is designed to be owned and operated by women from off-grid communities. Equipping them to make a living by selling renewable energy not only helps to uplift their own families, but also helps to make life easier and more comfortable for their neighbours. In addition, their involvement helps to promote the use of cleaner, cheaper, safer renewable energy sources.


As James van der Walt, who developed this game-changing innovation, explains: “Think of the SolarTurtle as a modern version of the tradition village water well. In this analogy, customers from the local community visit the well to recharge their battery packs, just as people used to refill their buckets at their local well. They then take their recharged battery packs back home to power their lights, charge their phones, run their fridges, watch their TVs and so on. When they need a refill, they simply pay another visit to the well, or the SolarTurtle.”


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Image: The SolarTurtle’s Khaya Power battery bottles with lights  


As a Better Living Challenge finalist, James’ inspired solution has already won recognition from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which recently awarded the SolarTurtle one of its prestigious South African Climate Solver Awards, describing it as one of the ‘great examples of innovation that will help create a more sustainable future for all’.


Indeed, the SolarTurtle is capable of delivering a list of compelling benefits to communities that remain beyond the scope of the national grid for various reasons. Many, for example, are simply too remote or too poor to afford the infrastructure. Many are also the victims of cable theft, which is a huge problem in South Africa. By contrast, the SolarTurtle eliminates the need for electrical cables by using portable and rechargeable battery packs to electrify households.


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Image: Plugging in the SolarTurtle’s power 


The benefits do not end there. This pay-as-you-go option is up to 75% cheaper than paraffin and significantly safer and healthier. It does not require complex maintenance or costly installation. The plug-and-play battery packs themselves are easily portable, very user-friendly and highly versatile. As well as powering typical household appliances, they can also be used to power devices such as home computers and smartphones at home and at work.


Looking ahead, James is confident that the SolarTurtle can make a positive and sustainable difference to low-income communities throughout South Africa and beyond. “Launching one small SolarTurtle business is a good start – but we need to go further. We want these businesses to keep growing until they form a critical mass across the country. At that point, these combined businesses can start selling their excess electricity and form self-supporting mini-grids by connecting with each other. If we can establish SolarTurtles in just 100 villages, they could help to transform over 720,000 lives.”