Long journey to success for SA’s SolarTurtle

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It has been a long, hard road for James van der Walt, chief executive officer (CEO) of South African startup SolarTurtle, but it is finally starting to bear fruit.

SolarTurtle, registered as a business in 2016, develops secure solar containers for off-grid electrification, with each solar container serving as an energy platform from which a small business or similar can be operated.

Essentially, it is an ultra-secure solar solution in a box. Shipping containers are converted into small, mobile solar power micro-utilities, which generates and sells electricity at a grassroots level.

“Our SolarTurtles are designed specifically for off-grid communities where conventional solar PV solutions will not work. With the push of a button this system folds-away for security or transport,” van der Walt told Disrupt Africa.

“In crime-ridden areas across Africa traditional solar PV solutions have failed. The solar panels are typically stolen within a few months of deployment. The problem is so bad that the Gauteng provincial government was prepared to dismiss solar power as a possible electricity solution for schools and community centres. However, we can do something about this.”

The SolarTurtle solar containers are designed for unparalleled security and maximum portability. They are assembled off site then deployed by offloading the container and pressing a button. The solar panels fold automatically and point towards the sun.

“The SolarTurtle feeds just like a turtle. In the morning when it is safe the panels unfold from their secure location to feed from the rays of the sun,” said van der Walt. “In the evening when it is unsafe the panels fold away into the hard shell of the container. The power from the SolarTurtle feeds an energy kiosk inside the container or an office, clinic, bank, shop or whatever you want – safely and securely.”

Getting to this point, however, has been a long journey. The idea for starting a business based around energy provision was conceived while van der Walt was working as a software engineer in Ireland a few years back. He quit his job, and moved back to South Africa to start his business.

Considereing various types of renewable energy technologies, he was put in touch with the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University.

“The expert on ocean generating technology I talked to was Professor Wikus van Niekerk. He listened to my story and was intrigued. He invited me to join their mechanical engineering master’s program even though I was not from a mechanical engineering background. It was a great opportunity,” he said.

“Firstly it would allow me to understand the renewable energy market of South Africa, and secondly it would be a fantastic networking opportunity. The CRSES is connected with all the major renewable energy initiatives in South Africa. So in I enrolled as a full time master’s student in the beginning of 2012.”

Though his new company, Ugesi Gold, was one of the winners of the Stellenbosch Ideas Competition (SIC), van der Walt spent a long time researching different forms of renewable energy without settling on a sustainable business model.

“Originally I did not want to use solar because it is the only technology that we do not manufacture in South Africa. PV cells and panels are usually imported from Germany and China. I was trying to focus on people helping themselves, so I wanted to avoid dependencies,” he said.

“However, as I kept researching the problem I started to understand why solar PV is so popular for rural electrification. It is just so simple and robust, and their prices just keep dropping. Plus South Africa has so much sun!”

Research began in May 2013, with a field expedition to the rural villages around the town of Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. During the expedition the needs of the rural community were assessed, as well as the viability launching of a micro-utility in the area.

“In addition, existing rural and informal settlement solar PV solutions were visited and the state of these systems was evaluated to gain insights to possible improvements. The results were shocking,” said van der Walt.

“Of the four existing solar PV systems visited in the Cofimvaba area not a single one was still operational. Theft, vandalism and a lack of ownership had led to the failure of all these rural electrification attempts. This further cemented the need for a micro-utility to promote ownership but more importantly it highlighted the need for extra security.”

The Covimvaba field research was further supplemented by research in Enkanini near Stellenbosch, where van der Walt and his team installed solar PV in informal shacks and asked locals what they thought about electricity and solar power.

“Most were very eager to get some sort of electricity at their shakes though most were hesitant to install solar panels on their roofs. They were scared it could get stolen and that Eskom would use this as an excuse to not connect them to the national grid,” he said. “When we explained the battery recharging concept to them they all seemed very keen as they won’t need a home installation.”

During the course of his research at Stellenbosch University, van der Walt developed the SolarTurtle.

“The idea was to incorporate all the problems seen in rural and informal settlements into a product that is simple, robust and cost-effective yet does not take a long time to construct,” he said.

In October 2013, he completed his Master’s thesis, with many more parties in the meantime coming forward to express their interest in the SolarTurtle as a way to bring social and economic upliftment to poor communities. Among them was South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), which provided van der Walt with grant funding. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) then followed suit.

The first SolarTurtle pilot deployed in June 2015, and the business was registered the next year. But more hurdles were to follow.

“Every company must experience failure to evolve and to understand the market better, 2016 was our toughest year yet,” van der Walt said.

Protests at educational institutions across South Africa affected SolarTurtle installations, but van der Walt was determined to learn from the situation.

“We needed an automated system that can fold-away quickly if a threat arrives. Ideally the women staffing the container must lock themselves in and press the panic button. This should send a distress message and close the solar panels automatically,” he said.

“Secondly, we need to diversify the revenue streams of the energy kiosk. Though serving the school needs is great, it should also serve the community needs, so that if the students are gone the business can still generate enough income to keep it afloat.”

SolarTurtle, however, continued to win a host of awards, securing funds to keep it going over the course of a tough year. 2017 kicked off in the same way, with the startup included in a six-month training programme as part of the Africa Prize for Engineering, and taking part in the Pitch@Palace event at St James Palace in London.

van der Walt has also secured a grant for a new design called the AutoTurtle, which will fold-away at the press of a button and will be unveiled in Cape Town in December.

“In 2017 SolarTurtle pivoted to address additional needs identified in the off-grid market. Not only are we doing energy kiosk in containers but our technology has now also found its way to the banking industry,” he said.

Things are looking up.

“We deployed a solar bank branch in a box for Nedbank in September. This is to serve as quick branches for disaster recovery and as branches for rural communities. So now we are a solar container company. We use our fold-away technology for many applications. Anyone that needs a quiet space to work from that’s secure and safe should use a SolarTurtle,” said van der Walt.

“At the time of this writing SolarTurtle is also busy with tenders for Lesotho and Tanzania for energy kiosks and micro-grids. Together with the prospects of rolling out more solar bank branches, 2018 looks like it is going to be a good year. Hopefully we can start many more community-run businesses and expand our operations into the rest of Africa.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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