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Jan Lee headshot

The iShack: Bringing Renewable Energy to South Africa Settlements

Words by Jan Lee

Connecting impoverished homes with electricity and access to safe drinking water has always been a challenge in South Africa. As much as 25 percent of the population lives without electricity, and a many as 3.5 million people in the country do not have access to safe drinking water.

But those goals may be a bit more within reach thanks to some enterprising post-graduate students who have figured out a way to equip low-cost structures, such as the shacks that are used in some South African settlements, with solar power and water catchment systems.

Mr. Andreas Keller, Ms. Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr. Berry Wessels are members of a transdisciplinary team working on the “iShack.” Its name means “improved shack” – a low-cost housing structure that incorporates solar power for basic electricity needs. The model is designed with extra insulation and additional features to protect its occupants from South Africa’s intense summer heat, and to retain heat during the winter.

The prototype is the result of an 18-month research project that focused on living conditions in the nearby settlement of Enkanini. Professor Mark Swilling of Stellenbosch University’s TsamaHub directed the project. Regional agencies such as the Sustainability Institute at Lynedoch, the municipality of Stellenbosch, the Informal Settlement Network and the Community Organisation Resource Centre also contributed input to the project.

During their research, the students looked at various ways of improving the living conditions in informal settlements where immediate shelter is often a first consideration and finances for improvements such as lights, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and running water are often not available.

They discovered that by repositioning the shack on a north-south axis, adding windows in specific locations, a solar panel on the roof and a number of low-cost features such as fire-retardant paint, a sloping roof with a gutter and modified building materials, they could upgrade the conventional corrugated or iron shack to a structure that stayed cooler, generated electricity and provided a means for harvesting rainwater.

“We are working on a social enterprise model,” Keller said, who explained that an added funding challenge was that in South Africa, structures like the informal shack wouldn’t qualify for the housing subsidies that are provided for conventional housing. However, a $250,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help expand the number of iShacks available. They are also looking into some energy and emergency housing subsidies that may help defray the costs for the occupants.

In the Enkanini settlement maintenance of the solar panel would be handled by an appointed resident of the settlement called an energy hub operator. He or she would be trained on how to install and maintain the small panel and DC grid. Keller said that they are hoping to see about 250 iShacks installed in the Enkanini settlement.

“Included in user fees is a portion which pays this person and the materials needed.”

At present, a brand-new iShack costs approximately $650. A modified version, in which features are added to a conventional shack, runs about $50.

The team is also looking at ways that the prototype could be modified to be used in other parts of the world with different environmental conditions and demands.

“The idea is to develop a generic institutional model that can be adapted to other settings. The fundamental principles of the iShack are very easily adaptable to other contexts,” Keller said. The pricing for the model would depend upon location and availability of materials. “We will be developing further prototypes that improve on the current design to keep improving on the principles.”

Keller said the project has been a “reality check” for the team, who basically lived on site during the 18-month project in Enkanini.

“(It’s) difficult to change a system,” he said, noting that he learned from the project that it is “best to start small and let things grow from there.”

But with the new iShack prototype completed, the team hopes the idea will catch on in other communities in South Africa as well.

“Our idea is for the iShack to become accessible to other settlements to improve the well-being of residents today,” Keller said.

Image of Madiba Galada, hub operator on roof by iShack team member. Image of iShack research team by Anna Lusty.


Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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