“The rewards are the changes you make to society, not your bank account”
James van der Walt, an Africa Prize and Frontiers of Engineering alumnus from South Africa, has made huge progress with his innovative solar energy franchise, SolarTurtle. We interviewed him about his challenges, latest products and tips for fellow entrepreneurs:
Can you briefly describe your innovation?
SolarTurtle is a self-contained solar-powered hub. In the morning, the solar panels unfold from their secure location to feed from the sun’s rays. In the evening, the panels fold away into a tamper-proof hard shell. The power generated by the SolarTurtle supports a business inside the hub - office, clinic, bank, shop etc.
The SolarTurtle offers unique safety, flexibility and innovation through solar containers.
What inspired you to create the SolarTurtle?
My motivation came from realising the versatility of renewable energy, and its ability to reach those hard to reach places and people. Instead of spending money importing candles, lamp oil or petrol for a generator, money goes to local solar-powered services. Local women are trained to be Turtlepreneurs to own and promote these small energy franchises, so the resources spent on energy stay in the community.
By starting small micro-utility businesses in off-grid locations, a circular economy is promoted. If we can link the power of tomorrow to those who are powerless today, we can promote lasting social impact.
What are your biggest challenges?
Our three biggest challenges are:
Security - solar panels and businesses that keep cash are often targets for crime. By using a shipping container, we protect the expensive solar PV (photovoltaic) system and the women running the energy franchises.
Financing - rural entrepreneurs don't have access to the finances needed to procure an expensive SolarTurtle, which costs around £30,000 to build. We offer the energy franchises on a pay-as-you-work basis, so we can recover the investment over a few years - like buying a house.
Return on investment (RoI) - since social business is not a charity activity, we must offer a competitive return for investors. However, it can take up to 10 years for a solar container business to recover its investment. That’s why we’re busy designing the new BabyTurtle, which will reduce the cost and increase the RoI. There’s a business case if money can be made by helping rural women start their own energy kiosks. Watch this space, we’re excited about this one!
What impact did the Africa Prize have on you?
A second family is the best way to describe it. Meredith and the Africa Prize team work very hard, not just to give you knowledge on social business but also to link you to others fighting the good fight. The network and connections I gained are still offering benefits to this day. We’ve collaborated on a project with Eco-V, one of the 2017 finalists, to produce South Africa's first solar bank in a container. This drop-n-go bank branch is for disaster recovery, events and servicing rural communities.
Have you been involved with other RAEng programmes?
I participated in Frontiers of Engineering (FoE), a networking event to link researchers and practitioners who are passionate about making a difference in their respective countries. The symposium was different from every other academic conference I've been to. It was not just about promoting the latest research and initiatives, but more about creating networks. A great deal of effort was put into getting people to talk about what they do and how they could collaborate with others in their field.
You were awarded some seed-funding as a result of FoE – what has it helped you achieve?
Through FoE we were awarded a £20,000 research grant and linked with Dr Paoletti and Dr Fichera, mechanical engineers at Liverpool university, to produce our new automatic SolarTurtle (the AutoTurtle). I’ve had the idea for some time but the input from mechanical engineers helped me understand how it would work practically.
The fold-away design is automated and includes sun-tracking, storm detection and auto-sunrise/sunset features. We hope to use this new design for clinics in disaster recovery. We really enjoyed working together and we’ve been looking at future projects.
What stage are you at now?
The AutoTurtle prototype was unveiled at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power Africa conference at the end of July 2018. The prototype will house a community tailoring business in the informal settlement of Delft, Cape Town. We’re still testing the new features, like the elevation sun tracking and storm sensors, but we hope to start commercialising this soon.
Do you have any tips for your fellow entrepreneurs?
Be brave, hold on, and follow your passion!
You need to be brave to go off the beaten track to make new paths. It’s an adventure and not for the faint of heart.
Perseverance is key. You’re not working in a make-money-fast industry; the rewards are the changes you make to society, not your bank account. I'm not saying you will be poor, just that it will take longer than your typical Silicon Valley tech-start-up. So like a Turtle - slow and steady wins the race
Passion - as a social entrepreneur you need to be intrinsically motivated. This is what keeps you going when things are tough. If you don't enjoy what you’re doing you will quickly drop it once the novelty wears off.
Finally, don't do this alone. You need a team and friends who compliment your strengths and weaknesses because - trust me, not everything about a start-up is fun. Social entrepreneurs are fighting a common enemy - poverty, climate degradation and suffering – and other entrepreneurs are not your competition but your comrades.
Through collaboration we will change the world - this is the common message in the Africa Price and Frontiers of Engineering.
If you want to collaborate with a SolarTurtle - software, hardware, electronics or social research - please get in touch, we have lots of new innovations in the making.
To see the new AutoTurtle in action and learn more, visit solarturtle.co.za.