Solar Shacks

The topic of my column for this week is maybe not directly related to Texel but a somewhat more personal story.Three years ago I made a trip to Cape Town, South-Africa, to visit a friend who was at that time doing an internship for a NGO in the townships of Cape Town. We went to visit her office in Khayelitsha, which is the largest of the townships in the area. This was a very impressing, but also quite unexpected experience. I had seen pictures of townships and the poor conditions in these areas on television, but seeing it with your own eyes is even worse. The houses are made of corrugated iron and packed really close together. Everywhere you look is garbage or rubble. But there are also great differences to be noted. We for instance drove past a shack with a small car park and a garage (also made of corrugated iron). In the car park a few old and small trailers were parked, and a sign told us this man ran a trailer rental company. The owner, however, seemed to be making a good living out of this company because the half opened door of the shack/garage revealed a brand new white BMW M3. When I asked my friend how this could be, she told me that even though people start to earn some money, they do not want to move. The sense of community is so strong that they rather live in these conditions and spent their money on cars, or as she told us as well, on flatscreen TV’s. This also explained the ridiculous amount of bundles of electricity cables that hung over the houses. My friend told us that this causes a great fire hazard, and that fires from short circuit were very common.

Last fall my friend graduated and started working for the same NGO and has returned to Cape Town. Last weekend we called via Skype and I told her about this course and asked if she has noticed some sustainable transitions in South-Africa. She recalled our visit from three years ago and said that people have started to see the risks of these huge amount of cables and have started to install solar panels on top of their shacks. According to her, people have realised that it’s more safe to use solar panels than to tap the electricity wires, so they have started buying solar panels.

After the call I started thinking about this and realised it really connects to Gertjan de Werk’s lecture last week. He quickly mentioned that in some areas, the entire wired network will be skipped, and people will start to generate their own electricity. I also thought that this was a great example of a socio-technical change that has a bottom up approach. When I google for solar panels and townships, I get a lot of results on organisations trying to stimulate these ideas and entrepreneurs that try to fill this market gap. I could speculate that a few important people inside the townships (like the owner of the trailer rental perhaps) started buying solar panels and in that way influenced the entire community.

It is a long journey back to Texel from Cape Town, but I really think there are lessons to be learned from this case. If a demand is present and a few influential people start using a sustainable alternative, this solution has a good chance of succeeding and can be injected in the society, bottom-up.

Stefan Olsthoorn

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