The Democratic Alliance (DA), in collaboration with solar panel instal-lation company Energy Systems Africa (ES Africa), has launched a campaign to provide solar light and energy for informal settlements in Gauteng and, eventually, to the rest of South Africa.
Seventy-three pilot solar power units were installed in informal settlements in Bushbuckridge, Germiston, Midrand, Springs, Jeppe and Midvaal late last year, affecting the lives of more than 200 people so far.
The Light Up Your Life campaign promotes a two-pronged solution for informal-settlement dwellers who do not have electricity. This includes a 2 ℓ clear plastic bottle, called an ecolight, which reflects sunlight from outside to light up dark, windowless shacks during the day, as well as a solar panel and battery unit, which provide solar light and energy at night.
The ecolight initiative entails filling a 2 ℓ plastic bottle with water and bleach (to prevent algae growth), installing it into a hole in the metal roofing of a shack and sealing it around the edges to prevent leakages.
Once the bottle is inserted into the roof, sunlight enters the top of the bottle and the sun’s rays are magnified, distributing light at 360°.
ES Africa director Rodney Love tells Engineering News that an ecolight can provide 85 lux levels on a clear day, which is equivalent to a 55 W bulb. “With this application, free light can be harvested during the day,” he says.
The ecolight initiative was developed in Brazil in 2002 and has reportedly been successful in informal settlements in developing countries, particularly in the Philippines.
Love describes the concept design for the solar power unit, used to generate light after dark, as a ‘wagon-wheel-type’ installation. Up to eight dwellings can be powered at a time by one central solar panel, a controller and a battery, provided that they are situated within 30 m of the central unit.
“This is the game changer for me,” says DA Gauteng caucus leader Jack Bloom, who initiated the project in South Africa.
“Linking six to eight shacks to one solar panel is economical – it’s cost effective and will deter theft, with more than one family ensuring that the solar panel and battery remain secure.”
The one-off cost for every solar panel and battery unit is about R1 400 a unit, reports Bloom. He further notes that shack residents generally spend more than R100 a month on candles and paraffin for lighting.
With this in mind, Bloom explains that, within five months, each of the residents benefiting from one solar power unit should recover the amount they have contributed towards the unit. “Thereafter, light will essentially be free and safe,” he adds.
The DA will campaign in Gauteng for all councils and the provincial government to promote solar lighting in informal settlements. Sponsorship has already been obtained for solar power units to be installed at the Boitumelo informal settlement in the DA-controlled Midvaal council, which will lead this initiative.
The party will also collaborate with corporate sponsors, nongovernmental organisations and local residents to roll out the projects in other parts of Gauteng.
“It’s best, however, that companies looking to provide sponsorship for this initiative do not affiliate themselves with a political party. As a result, the DA will hand the project over to community organisations, such as the Informal Settlements Network (ISN),” says Bloom, further emphasising the need for corporate sponsorship to kick-start the roll-out of the project.
“Communities must take ownership of the initiative. However, they first need to witness a demonstration of the solar power unit in their area before they buy into the project,” adds Bloom.
Love believes the local business sector must spearhead the Light Up Your Life campaign through corporate social investment initiatives, enterprise development initiatives and donations to “encourage local government to catapult this life-changing intervention”.
“It’s important to note that these people have almost nothing and we will have to assist at first,” he says.
Bloom also calls for community leadership, especially in the larger informal settlements, to encourage their communities to save money for the solar power units. With this in place, Bloom hopes the campaign will make an impact in Gauteng by the middle of the year.
“Once the project starts funding itself, it will expand fast,” he says.
When the Light Up Your Life campaign is fully under way, the next step for the DA and ES Africa will be to consider an alter- native solution for heating and cooking in informal settlements.
Love confirms that ES Africa is developing a communal solar water geyser.
Eradicating Shack Fires
Bloom first became acquainted with the Jeppe informal settlement, in eastern Johannesburg, in 2011, after a runaway fire had destroyed 56 shelters, as a result of a tipped paraffin stove.
“Fortunately, no lives were lost, but about 250 people had lost everything they had, which wasn’t much in the first place,” says Bloom.
This inspired the DA leader to get more involved with informal settlements in Gauteng. At the time, Bloom launched the Don’t Forget the Forgotten campaign, which involved monthly visits to informal settlements to experience what life is like for shack dwellers.
Having spent 15 nights in various informal settlements in the province, he became passionate about finding a healthier and safer alternative to using candles and paraffin as sources of light.
Both Bloom and Love believe the primary benefit of the campaign has been its ability to prevent accidental shack fires.
“The real objective is to take away people’s dependence on fire and improve the indoor air quality of their homes,” says Love.
“I cannot accept that people still need to strike a match to light a fuel source when a simple intervention – such as installing solar panels and an ecolight – could eradicate this.”
He further highlights the noxious gases emitted by candles, paraffin lanterns and wood fires – the fumes of which shack dwellers have to endure.
Bloom believes it is unlikely that State-owned power utility Eskom will electrify informal settlements in the near future, which is why installing solar power as an alter- native energy source is so important.
“Solar power’s time has come, as it is now an affordable and effective technology,” he concludes.