The iShack: Bringing Renewable Energy to South Africa Settlements
By Jan Lee | February 6th, 2013
Connecting impoverished homes with electricity and access to safe
drinking water has always been a challenge in South Africa. As much as
25 percent of the population lives without electricity, and a many as
3.5 million people in the country do not have access to safe drinking
But those goals may be a bit more within reach thanks to some
enterprising post-graduate students who have figured out a way to
equip low-cost structures, such as the shacks that are used in some
South African settlements, with solar power and water catchment systems.
Mr. Andreas Keller, Ms. Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr. Berry Wessels are
members of a transdisciplinary team working on the ï¿½iShack.ï¿½ Its name
means ï¿½improved shackï¿½ ï¿½ a low-cost housing structure that
incorporates solar power for basic electricity needs. The model is
designed with extra insulation and additional features to protect its
occupants from South Africaï¿½s intense summer heat, and to retain heat
during the winter.
The prototype is the result of an 18-month research project that
focused on living conditions in the nearby settlement of Enkanini.
Professor Mark Swilling of Stellenbosch Universityï¿½s TsamaHub directed
the project. Regional agencies such as the Sustainability Institute at
Lynedoch, the municipality of Stellenbosch, the Informal Settlement
Network and the Community Organisation Resource Centre also
contributed input to the project.
During their research, the students looked at various ways of
improving the living conditions in informal settlements where
immediate shelter is often a first consideration and finances for
improvements such as lights, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and
running water are often not available.
They discovered that by repositioning the shack on a north-south axis,
adding windows in specific locations, a solar panel on the roof and a
number of low-cost features such as fire-retardant paint, a sloping
roof with a gutter and modified building materials, they could upgrade
the conventional corrugated or iron shack to a structure that stayed
cooler, generated electricity and provided a means for harvesting
ï¿½We are working on a social enterprise model,ï¿½ Keller said, who
explained that an added funding challenge was that in South Africa,
structures like the informal shack wouldnï¿½t qualify for the housing
subsidies that are provided for conventional housing. However, a
$250,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help
expand the number of iShacks available. They are also looking into
some energy and emergency housing subsidies that may help defray the
costs for the occupants.
In the Enkanini settlement maintenance of the solar panel would be
handled by an appointed resident of the settlement called an energy
hub operator. He or she would be trained on how to install and
maintain the small panel and DC grid. Keller said that they are hoping
to see about 250 iShacks installed in the Enkanini settlement.
ï¿½Included in user fees is a portion which pays this person and the
At present, a brand-new iShack costs approximately $650. A modified
version, in which features are added to a conventional shack, runs
The team is also looking at ways that the prototype could be modified
to be used in other parts of the world with different environmental
conditions and demands.
ï¿½The idea is to develop a generic institutional model that can be
adapted to other settings. The fundamental principles of the iShack
are very easily adaptable to other contexts,ï¿½ Keller said. The pricing
for the model would depend upon location and availability of
materials. ï¿½We will be developing further prototypes that improve on
the current design to keep improving on the principles.ï¿½
Keller said the project has been a ï¿½reality checkï¿½ for the team, who
basically lived on site during the 18-month project in Enkanini.
ï¿½(Itï¿½s) difficult to change a system,ï¿½ he said, noting that he learned
from the project that it is ï¿½best to start small and let things grow
But with the new iShack prototype completed, the team hopes the idea
will catch on in other communities in South Africa as well.
ï¿½Our idea is for the iShack to become accessible to other settlements
to improve the well-being of residents today,ï¿½ Keller said.
Image of Madiba Galada, hub operator on roof by iShack team member.
Image of iShack research team by Anna Lusty.
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