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Africa’s portable solar revolution is thwarting thieves

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Solar power is being used to give remote villages access to reliable sources of electricity for refrigeration and irrigation. Photograph: Solar Turtle

When South Africa’s government started giving laptops to off-grid schools, James van der Walt spotted an opportunity for a solar business. But his market research revealed a problem: of 12 schools he visited, 11 had previously lost solar panels to thieves. So he decided to pack his system into a reinforced shipping container, creating a secure, mobile power station that could be shut away at the end of each day.

The prototype Solar Turtle has survived its first year powering a school in the Eastern Cape, despite civil unrest that forced the school to close for three months. Save for some scratches where someone tried to break in, the unit came through intact. “Nothing got broken, nothing got damaged,” says van der Walt. “It was like, ‘Yes, it’s actually working’.”

Solar Turtle is just one example from a clutch of startups trying to navigate the challenges of Africa’s off-grid electricity sector with mobile, flexible solar technology. It’s part of a mosaic of businesses, social enterprises and philanthropic schemes fuelling talk of an African “solar revolution”. Other startups include Juabar and ARED, which supply portable solar kiosks for phone-charging businesses in Tanzania and Rwanda respectively, creating jobs while boosting access to clean, cheap energy.

New ideas and declining costs are already leading to a dramatic uptake of solar technology across Africa, according to a report published this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency.

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Van der Walt is not alone in using shipping containers. German firm Africa GreenTec created a similar grid-in-a-box for villages in Mali to attract investors nervous about the vulnerability to theft of conventional technology in unstable regions. “This way we can recover the whole thing if there is any crisis,” says founder Torsten Schreiber. “We only need a few hours to put it on a truck and leave.”

It’s unsurprising that entrepreneurs are seeking routes into Africa’s off-grid solar sector. More than 630 million people lack electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency. The majority of additional investment required to achieve the UN target of universal energy access by 2030 needs to go into off-grid and mini-grid systems, it has said.

One hope is that electrification won’t just bring light, TV and phone charging, but spawn new industries too. Africa GreenTec’s prototype, launched in south-west Mali’s Mourdiah village in 2015, offers a glimpse of what’s possible. Locals used to throw away 80% of their goats’ milk, says Schreiber, but thanks to energy for cooling from the solar container, they now use it to make cheese. Mango juice is also newly on sale.

Despite the buzz around such ventures, most are very small and in need of funds. Commercial investors have shown some appetite for backing bigger players such as solar systems business M-Kopa Solar, which raised $19m in one investment round last November. But young, innovative startups still rely on money from donors and so-called impact investors, who look for social benefits as well as a financial return, says the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association’s executive director, Koen Peters.

Schreiber’s experience at Africa GreenTec bears this out. Having crowdfunded the money for four containers (at around €150,000 a go) he is now looking to mainstream investors to back 50 more. This plan would make him the biggest decentralised energy provider in Mali, he says, but is too small for venture capitalists approached to date: “They told me ‘If you need $100m, come again’,” he says.

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