SolarTurtle: South Africa’s community owned renewable energy business in a box

We had a chance to catch up with James van der Walt, the founder and entrepreneur behind SolarTurtle. Part of the Hivos sponsored Green Pioneer Accelerator, the SolarTurtle team is currently engaged in an intensive acceleration program hosted by our partners Impact Amplifier in Cape Town, South Africa. Want to meet this company in person? Join our upcoming Venture Forum Thursday the 11th of June 2015.

Please pitch your business:

The SolarTurtle is a community owned renewable energy micro-franchise for off-grid electrification in hard to reach places across Sub Saharan Africa. The SolarTurtle functions as an electricity distribution point, neatly packaged in a theft resistant shipping container design. These small power station businesses are assembled off site and then transported to an off-grid community, where they provide an easily accessible source of electricity to the local community.

What inspired you to start this?

The world economic crisis triggered the initial idea as unemployment throughout the world sky rocketed. The world is in crisis. Not many would deny that – Climate change, unemployment & the energy crisis are all harsh realities that we live with every day. It was the energy crisis that really grabbed my attention, as crisis is just another term for opportunity. What if those living in poverty start to generate their own electricity and sell it to their neighbours? Gone are the days where electricity solely resides in the realm of multimillion dollar power utility companies. Renewable energy has made it possible for anyone to produce this valuable commodity. This will earn them an income; tackle the energy crisis and save the environment all in one go. This was where the idea of renewable energy micro-utility franchises first entered my mind.

What problem are you solving?

The demand for electricity is on the increase and is essential to our modern way of life. It allows us access to communication devices, entertainment, clean and safe lighting, modern education mediums and much more. The problem in Africa is that it has a dismal electrification grid and most people are left to fend for themselves. There are an estimated 585 million people living in the dark across Sub-Saharan Africa and this number is expected to rise. (IEA, 2012) Surely there must be a sustainable way to address this problem. We need interventions that are robust, scalable and portable that can be injected into those hard to reach areas where normal utility providers do not tread. That’s where the micro-utilities, like the SolarTurtle, come to the rescue.

Can you describe your target market? What is the size of business opportunity?

William Kamkwamba, a 14 year old boy from Malawi, picked up a book on wind power and decided to build a wind turbine himself. Everyone in his rural village thought he was crazy but he completed the project by just looking at the pictures and scavenging for parts. The wind system provided electricity and served as a water pump for his poor farming family. Soon people from far and wide were gathering outside his house hoping to charge their cell phones. (Kamkwamba, 2009) As this heart-warming story shows, electricity can make a meaningful impact on people’s lives and the demand for electricity is high even in the most rural settings.

Electricity is crucial to our modern lives and the demand is still growing. Between 1980 and 2000 the demand for energy grew by 42% and is expected grow another 150-230% by 2050. (United Nations Environment Programme, 2002) There are still 1.3 billion people worldwide that do not have access to electricity. (IEA, 2012) These communities might be poor but using the micro-utility model, coupled with a clever financing plan, they will be able to help themselves instead of waiting for NGO’s or the government to come to their aid.

What is the innovation you bring about? What is the impact opportunity?

The SolarTurtle is a renewable energy business is a box. It is assembled and tested off-site, after which it can be transported to any off-grid community no matter how remote due to its portable design. At the site the SolarTurtle becomes operational within minutes thanks to its unique solar panel deployment/security system. The solar panels are fixed to the side of the container which quickly unfolds to face the sun. The panels also fold-up and lock away at night to provide unparalleled security.

The inside of the container contains a solar battery charging station and shop. Community members that want electricity simply show up at the container and purchase a battery pack along with a range of energy efficient 12V devices. At home the battery pack provides a versatile source of electricity without waiting for an installation crew. Simply plug the devices into the battery pack and the lights go on. Recharging batteries is also seamless. Like the milkman of years passed, a delivery person stops by and collects the flat batteries and swaps them for full ones after a day’s charging at the SolarTurtle. Hence the SolarTurtle creates jobs, supplies green electricity and energy efficient devices in areas that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Please highlight what has been achieved so far. What are the key milestones?

The SolarTurtle has already received a lot of attention and continues to do so. In February 2014 the project was proclaimed as a Climate Solver by the WWF. The SolarTurtle was also a finalist in the Better Living Challenge (BLC) in October 2014. Over the course of two weeks hundreds of people came to see the SolarTurtle and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately the SolarTurtle did not win the overall prize. However, it was voted as one of the best projects by the public. This is very encouraging as it shows that the public finds the SolarTurtle both novel and useful which can make a difference in their lives.

In December 2014 the SolarTurtle was named a 110% Green flagship by the Western Cape government. A Flagship is an organisation that has made more than the usual commitment towards the Green Economy. This year the SolarTurtle was invited to the WWF’s renewable energy festival on the 28th of March for Earth Hour. The event aims at educating the public about the benefits of renewable energy, the accessibility of alternative energy sources and also focuses on offering solutions to South Africa’s unemployment, energy and climate crises. The event served as the unveiling of the completed prototype SolarTurtle before it heads to the rural Eastern Cape which is our next major milestone. Here it will be deployed next to a school where it will provide electricity to students so they can study effectively and safely at night.

Why did you join the Green Pioneer Accelerator and how are you leveraging this program?

In Ernesto Sirolli’s passionate TED talk he states that no one person has all the skills needed to run a successful business. You need people that can produce the product or service, sell to the target market and manage the finances. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to operating a successful business. The Green Pioneer Accelerator (GPA) helped us highlight our strengths and manage our weaknesses. With the GPA’s assistance all the aspects of the SolarTurtle business model was examined, critiqued and refined. The GPA also helped with defining our three year critical path and linking it with a financial model. This was truly a challenge and without the GPA we would not be where we are now. With this now found vision for the future the SolarTurtle business case is stronger than ever.

Where could you use additional support? How can the members of the VC4A community help you?

The SolarTurtle is a shop. Good products cannot make a difference when they are not put within reach of those who need it most. That is where we need help from the community. If you have you a good product that can make a meaningful impact then maybe we should team up. The SolarTurtle is the perfect platform from which green innovation can gain traction into less-privileged communities.

Do you have an ask for investors? 

We are actively looking for strong partners that can help us take the SolarTurtle to the next level. We are looking for someone with a strong business background that knows how to engage with the tough economic environment we find ourselves in. We aim to do business across Africa and this is no mean feat but if we succeed we can help millions of people with a brighter future.

What is your advice to other start-ups entrepreneurs out there?

Firstly, be passionate and have fun! If your heart is not in it then you will not have the drive needed to succeed. Secondly, do not be too attached to your idea. There’s an old saying that if you produce hammers, then everything will start looking like a nail. If you notice something is not working then let it go. Evolve and adapt, and if need be – let go. Always ask what is motivating your decisions. Are you protecting your ego or are you trying to have a meaningful impact. If you are honest with yourself you’ll know when you are trying to push forward because you don’t want to let go of an outdated idea. Will your idea make a difference or is there something better? Just remember that good entrepreneurs “fail” often.

What do you feel needs to happen to spur more innovation in green?

Team work and alliances – these are keys to solving the world’s problems. I can’t change the world and neither can you, but together we might make a meaningful impact. As social entrepreneurs we measure our success by the impact we bring and not the money in our accounts. We can work together as long as we leave our egos at the door and truly believe in the better world we are trying to create. Ubuntu – we stand together. For this reason I think VC4Africa is on the right track.

Any final message to add?

Share your idea. Don’t hold it back. The more people that see your idea, the more your idea will grow. You were given the inspiration to make a difference in the world and that idea must be given life independent of you. So talk to everyone and push it out there. Don’t be scared that someone might steal your idea. It was never yours to begin with. The only thing that belongs to you is the responsibility to make it happen. So get out of your comfort zone and drive that impact. That’s how we grow and that’s how we change the world.

Part of the Hivos sponsored Green Pioneer Accelerator, the SolarTurtle team is currently engaged in an intensive acceleration program hosted by our partners Impact Amplifier in Cape Town, South Africa. Want to meet this company in person? Join our upcoming Venture Forum Thursday the 11th of June 2015.