Illuminating homes for brighter futures: A case study on partnerships during the solar light kit distribution in Polokwane and Mthatha

Despite South Africa’s enormously successful electrification plan, 13% of households in the country remain without access to grid electricity and thus do not have safe, quality lighting which is necessary for human development. Through an SA Airlink initiative, SEA together with government and business partners were able to distribute 5000 solar light kits to vulnerable households.

 Despite South Africa’s enormously successful electrification plan, (from 36% in 1994 approximately 87%), 13% of households in the country remain without access to grid electricity (DoE, 2017) and thus do not have safe, quality lighting which is necessary for human development. These unelectrified households currently use fuels such as petroleum-based candles and paraffin for lighting, causing indoor air pollution and posing fire hazards. Outdoor wood fires are also used as a source of lighting for reading and homework by learners. Furthermore, these fuels are limiting in their ability to provide sufficient high-quality lighting for households, thus constraining household activity at night. This is especially disadvantageous for learners as they are unable to do their homework or study. Safe and effective lighting is also regarded as a contributing factor to enhancing safety and security in communities.

Recognising the need to give communities and in particular learners, a better quality of life, SA Airlink initiated a project to provide 5 000 households with free, clean solar lights. These portable solar charging light kits are a product of a Johannesburg-based company, Open Range Solar, and together these companies teamed up to alleviate energy poverty. Airlink then partnered with SEA to assist with the distribution of the kits to low-income, unelectrified households in Polokwane and the greater Mthatha region.
The kits are simple, affordable, safe and clean. They are also remarkably inventive as each battery operated kit provides three high quality energy efficient lights with 5 meter wiring, enough to light up the entire house. In addition, the kit also consists of a 2-mode torch and a USB port for cellphone charging, the latter to enable access to information on the internet. These kits are considered tier one solar home systems and are a temporary solution to the electricity connection backlogs.

To assist with the distribution of these kits, SEA in turn partnered with local supporting organisations. In Polokwane, SEA partnered with the municipal Electricity Department, as well as Rekakgona Youth Manufacturing and Projects (RYMP), a cooperative of young women from rural Polokwane producing hotboxes that have been trained as Energy Ambassadors around low-income household energy services, both of whom SEA has a strong relationship with. Both played an instrumental role in the choice of communities, training and roll out of the lights. In Mthatha, SEA contracted the expertise of Steam2Dream, an NGO involved in secondary school tutoring in Mthatha, that is largely supported by Airlink. The Eastern Cape Department of Education played a pivotal role in Mthatha by endorsing the project and assisting with school engagements in order for us to identify learners from unelectrified households.

By partnering with these local entities, SEA was able to understand the dynamics within the communities in order to design effective and efficient distribution plans, taking into consideration risks with regards to community, local government and school processes, schedules, delivery, and communication. These local partners also enabled direct entry points to the communities and schools so that key stakeholders and beneficiaries could be engaged with beforehand. The engagement step in the process was crucial in gaining buy-in from all concerned parties to mitigate any potential problem that might arise as a result of a limited number of households benefitting from this initiative.

The success of the distribution of these 5 000 solar light charging kits in Polokwane and Mthatha was largely a result of partnerships that were formed and strengthened between Airlink, SEA and the key stakeholders and illustrates the achievements that can be accomplished if businesses, NGOs and government work together.
This work aligns with SEA’s strategy around energy poverty which has focused on building capacity at the local level, research and strategy development, but more recently has focused on creating awareness and acceptance of alternative energy technologies in low-income communities. SEA began using this approach in Johannesburg, Polokwane and George by piloting the hotbox in low-income and unelectrified households to assist municipalities in the development of their energy services strategies. We have now encompassed solar lights into the suite of energy services piloted in communities.
This project was sponsored by SA Airlink, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility requirements and aligns to their educational outreach programme to support the future leaders of this country.

“I am grateful that there are organizations that care about our education and play a role in supporting us to brighten our future so that we can become what we aspire to be.”