Interview with James van der Walt, Founder, Solar Turtle
Location: Stellenbosch, South Africa
“Step one is having the courage”.
James van der Walt was working as a mechanical engineer in Ireland in 2009, when the economic crisis hit. “It was atrocious, everyone was going on the dole,” he remembers. He was taking a ferry to the Aran Isles – “where Father Ted was filmed” – when he had what he calls a personal revelation. How to solve three key problems in the world, which he felt were time critical? There was the sudden rise in unemployment, all around him. There was the energy crisis, and the climate crisis. The answer, he felt, could come in the form of wave generators.
“We were bobbing up and down on the ocean, and I was like goodness gracious, this ferry is 40,000 tonnes, how can it hold this many people,” he laughs. “I could see the pier next to me disappearing and then reappearing, a 40,000 tonne lift every second. I wondered why no one was taking advantage of this energy related project. Why not give the unemployed, without needing an engineering degree, the chance to create renewable energy projects, combat the energy poverty problem, and solve the climate crisis to a certain degree?” What about a trash wave generator, he thought, built out of recycled materials. “I was quite comfortable as a software engineer at the time. I had worked in avionics, in the financial industry, I had nothing to do with energy, really.” Sometimes, Van der Walt adds, “life has a way to kick you and make sure change happens.”
After leaving Ireland for New Zealand, Van der Walt found he was “drinking flat whites and going to software engineer job interviews, whilst waiting six months for a work permit.” He knew he would go home to Gauteng, in South Africa, all the while “working up the courage to make the jump, and make a difference in the world.” In his own words, he “bit”, with his boxes still trailing around the world behind him, from Ireland to New Zealand. “You have to go to where the problems are, and they are not in the first world,” he says. “I could make a bigger impact starting from home, and I was all bright-eyed and full of ideas. I started phoning anyone in the energy world, and I was pointed eventually to a professor at Stellenbosch University.” In 2012, he left Johannesburg to start a Masters at the centre for renewable energies, where he was able to work out the kinks of his new plan and understand the renewable energy market.
The idea for working with wave generators quickly came screeching to a halt; Van der Walt realised if he wanted to help the rural community, he couldn’t just work on the coastlines, where the ocean would “rip everything to pieces”. He pondered the idea of working with wind generators, but his philosophy – of keeping things simple and working with local materials – meant that he needed a new idea, which was not so high maintenance. “A rural community has to be able to build something themselves with components which they can source locally,” he emphasises. Solar was long lasting, could go anywhere, and required little maintenance, and he knew that the idea could work in the whole of Africa.
Local schools without electricity were rolling out an ICT programme, powered by solar panels which were provided by the government. “But it wasn’t that simple.” Crime was a huge problem. Solar panels are shipped from Germany or China, and a couple of local factories were starting to make them, but they were heavily targeted by syndicates, to be resold on the black market. Van der Walt was surprised to discover that of 11 out of 12 schools he visited, only one still had solar panels still intact. “And only because they had a full-time security guard. And a fence. Everyone wants energy, and no-one has it. South Africa has a little more money, and so is a huge target.”
The answer was a shipping container in which you could store solar panels securely in rural areas, especially as many traders worked with shipping containers locally. Solar Turtle was born (Ugesi Gold is the name of the holding company). Van der Walt planned for how the container could be opened and closed quickly and efficiently, keeping the panels safe at close of business. After receiving funding for the design and engineering element, the next step was to initiate a key part of the business plan from the start: getting rural women involved. “In his book, Muhammad Yunus talks about how giving women the purse strings in the relationship allows for a power shift, and for domestic abuse to reduce. I thought I could help the next generation of people, which is where my interest in women empowerment came in.”
Van der Walt does not believe there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa; “People will say stop wasting your time with your own venture and go and get a real job.” His friends were cynical, but he knew he only needed to find one inspiring person in the rural community – and that was Lungelwa Tyali, the director of operations and voice of the business. “Everyone was super excited about having electricity in the village, but no one was keen on working in the business in the community. Up popped a very elegant lady in a suit, a former Ericsson executive, whose brother had told her about the business idea. She had also quit her job, disillusioned, to help her community. It was a match made in heaven, a kindred spirit in the middle of nowhere, and she came to help run the major business.”`
In June 2015, Solar Turtle started to operate its solar battery charging station in a village in the Eastern Cape. With 3,000 pupils, Ngangolwandle secondary school is the only infrastructure in the community with electricity. “The closest village is Coffee Bay, and the school is inland from the coast – but there is no running water, roads or electricity, because the government could not provide it for everyone. We found some level ground to set up on, opened the doors, employed two women and a recent school-leaver to operate the container, trained everyone for a week.” Locals, especially teenagers, dropped off their devices for recharging for 20p – there were at least 200 phones being recharged every day. “And there was enough money to pay everyone’s salaries from generating the electricity.” A fridge, printer and laptop has gradually been added to the Solar Turtle, making it more school oriented.
With three projects under Solar Turtle’s belt (including a ‘power turtle’ to power a school, and a technology demo for the government), Van der Walt’s ambitious goal is to replicate the model for the smart village he has created, to reach 100 villages by 2024. “Everything is built off-site, so that we can check all of the electronics are working, the solar panels can flip open and close, and we drive them on trucks to the communities.” A year on and with six employees, Van der Walt is happy that the business is still alive, and hopes to find more contracts and get a second project up-and-running, or “bridge the gap”, as he says.
The idea is to move from the research, pilot, to running a real business which can make an impact. Van der Walt confesses that money-making is a challenge in pitching the business, especially when he cares so much about impact and development in a community business, when an investment can come back in 20 years, rather than the three years that investors usually want to see a return in. Most people in rural communities often leave to the city too, he says, which explains a high turnover in staff on the ground, running the Solar Turtle.
“Organisations like the World Bank or others have policies and frameworks to fund projects worth 10 million pounds, or huge power stations, and I think that conversely, they tend to stick to their own comfort zones,” says Van der Walt. “How do you get people to shift to a more distributed model for energy contribution?” There is also a move for Solar Turtle on the cards, from the western Cape to Sierra Leone in West Africa. “In South Africa we have an 85% electrification rate and the curse of cheap coal. Here, people are used to other options from competitors here, including the government, who make promises for free energy. However, Sierra Leone has a 5% electrification rate, and we can really make an impact.”