Lungi Tyali is the CEO of Solar Turtle who, with her business partner, James van der Walt, created a solar energy solution for rural and off-grid areas, empowering women and youth while delivering safe and secure electricity by means of their converted shipping containers. Across Africa there is a dire lack of provision for the electrification needs of the majority of the population, especially in rural communities. An estimated 585-million people are living without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa and of these 70% live in rural communities. In South Africa at present there are 3.4-million households without a formal, metered electricity supply; 2.2-million in formal and 1.2-million in informal households.
A Solar Turtle consists of a second-hand shipping container into which battery packs and solar panels have been fitted. Women and youth from the local community are trained to be ‘Turtle-preneurs’ or operators. The operator and container are placed in a rural community that requires electricity. Once the container is settled on the ground the doors are opened, the panels are moved outside and turned towards the sun to charge the batteries. When the Solar Turtle is charged, community members who require electricity can come and buy one of the bottled electricity packs. They plug the pack into their home system and they have power. There are small battery packs suitable for lighting, medium ones to power a television and big ones for refrigerators. They consist of a lead crystal battery inside a recycled bottle which is converted into a 12-volt socket, like a car socket. When the electricity pack runs dry it is simply returned to the Solar Turtle for recharging. The operator will plug it in, leave it to charge during the day and by evening it is ready to provide electricity again.
Opening out the solar panels was difficult at first but they have since been automated and they now open up towards the sun at the push of a button. This also helps with security, for if there is a problem and the operator feels unsafe, the Solar Turtle can fold its panels away within itself and close up, safe and sound. The Baby Turtle is affordable for the youth in the townships and is proving useful at stadiums, festivals and taxi ranks, since many phones run flat at these venues and there is no other place to recharge them.
Currently the majority of people rely on kerosene for heating, cooking and lighting, which is quite expensive. LED lights provide a cleaner, safer light for a much longer time. Starting one small business will not change the world but Solar Turtle wants these businesses to grow. When they have reached a critical mass they can start selling their excess energy and creating alternative electricity grids. Once Solar Turtles are in operation all over the country they can start connecting to one another, forming a web of support. The company is proudly South African, promoting only local products and drawing skills from the local populace rather than from further afield.
Solar Turtle hopes to balance the scales and empower women and the youth by offering skills training while teaching people how to run their own solar kiosks. Through their ICT training and management systems, they have a business model with which to train operators in business management, stocktaking and cashing up. This is done by gamification and the trainees can win rewards for using the programme. Many of their entrepreneurs lack any experience and few enjoy the responsibility of the business, so training has proved to be vital. Direct sales of Solar Turtles range from R30 000 for the Baby Turtle to R450 000, while the micro venture is a prepaid meter system for R14 per kilowatt. Rental can be anything between R200 and R1000. Tyali and van der Walt are looking at further ways to reduce the costs, while constantly innovating. Their aim is to focus on women, youth and a green economy. “This is the power of tomorrow for those who are powerless today,” Tyali says.