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“We Want Solar, We Want Solar,”
chanted the women, and the decision was made after four years of negotiations towards the first successful solar village pilot project in South Africa.

Edited from articles written by J.A. Opperman, Monica van Coller, SOLCEN; and Nancy V Richards, Fairlady Magazine, 23 June 1999
Revolving Fund For the People by the People
Folodhodwe, a remote village with 600 households in the northern province of South Africa, was singled out for a pilot project for solar power. This effort was spearheaded by the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs (DME). The village sits expensively far from the national electricity grid. The cost of the project, R2.5 million (about $ 0.5 million), was shared roughly 40/60 % between the South African Government and the German Bavarian State. Siemens Solar Division provided the technology. The Solar Home Systems (SHSs) were installed at 582 individual houses, at 3 schools, and at the clinic.
The project beneficiaries are the village inhabitants, which include 1500 students, 50 teachers, and between 3000 and 5000 rural poor. Around 10 ‘emerging’ contractors benefited from training and installation contracts.
The community will pay for the systems by means of a monthly service charge. All paybacks received will form part of a revolving fund, which will be used to service the photovoltaic systems. The community leaders, civic organizations, and the community have contributed to the project. It is therefore a project for the people, by the people.
Difficult Start, Women’s Wish Brought the Breakthrough
The road to solar power looked smooth, but more than four years elapsed between the first discussions of the concept and the launch of solar facilities on March 16, 1999 by the Minister of Minerals and Energy, South Africa.
“The major stumbling block was that the community had been promised grid electricity, and they felt accepting solar power would jeopardise their chances of getting it” says Xosi Lisa the DME’s director for energy demand. But there are no plans to extend the grid there in the near future. Another issue was that some of the better-off households in the village already had solar equipment and did not want to lose the unique status that it gave them.
“In the end, it was the women, who really pressed for the project to go ahead,” says Milton Mutbaydi of Development Focus of South Africa, the man who handled the delicate negotiations between the keenly impatient project organisers and the stoic, slow-to-act community. “Each time there was a meeting, the women were there - always in the majority - but they were voiceless,” says Milton. “Finally, they’d had enough of the delays and, a breakthrough meeting under a baobab tree in the village, they started to chant, ‘We want solar, we want solar’ and the decision was made.”
“It was also the women who were willing to pay” says Xosi Lisa. Because Folodhodwe had never before had electricity service, there was no culture of paying. But the women could see the benefits - at around R35 a month instead of the R60 to R90 they spent on paraffin, candles and batteries, this was a saving. This means a lot in a community where it is hard to make ends meet. Unemployment among menfolk is high and many households rely solely on the monthly pension of the oldest member (about R500) or, worse, on the salary of a woman working in the nearby mine for about R200 a month. The women knew that the solar energy would change their lives for the better. They also insisted that the handful of people in the community who were trained to manage and maintain the solar equipment for the whole village had to include a woman.
20th Century Technology among Huts & Baobabs
Once the decision had been made, almost all of the households found themselves with a silver panel mounted on a metal pole just outside their round huts.
All this happened in a village which was about as far from technology as man was from the moon 100 years ago. Homes are traditional rondavel style, made from hand-packed, baked and plastered mud bricks, painted with clay and topped with fringed thatch roofs to keep out the burning sun. There are goats and donkeys on the pathways and aged baobab trees as landmarks. And it is searingly hot and airless in the village. (R5 is about $1US).
The 20th century technology looks not a little incongruous, but what each one brings, along with its storage battery located inside the house, is the three light sources and a power point. Some households have one light source per hut, some have wired up loudspeakers so they can play music in their communal yard, others have their radios and televisions inside the house so they can watch and listen to them quietly after night fall.
Now that the village schools have been ‘solarised’ and equipped with lights and power points, the buildings can be used at night as community centers, for church services, and as places to teach adults in the evening. It also means that the high school can operate the television, overhead projector, and video machine that was donated by the project organisers.
The other rosy side is that, until recently, any babies born here in the evening or at night would have been delivered by the light of candles or paraffin lamps. Mothers needing oxygen faced the added risk of the gas combining with naked flame. Electric lighting has made the whole process safer.
So far, the Folovhodwe solarization project has been a success - even a source of envy for the neighbouring communities. But there is still a long way to go. There are further plans, for a solar-driven water filter and pump to purify and distribute water, as well as for solar cookers.
RDP Schools & Clinics Program
Beside the above Solar Village project, SOLCEN is active in the Rural Schools Electrification Program, which is a Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) initiative. It relies on donor funding from Holland and the EU. It is already providing electricity to 1,700 schools in very rural communities where there are often no other public services whatsoever. This has been implemented in just over 18 months, and 500 more school project are open to tender right now, in July. In many of these communities, school electrification is the first tangible indication of changes under the new government. Approximately 1.2 million children now have access to electricity that can be used to provide light for study purposes after hours. It also enables children to use other educational media, such as videos and TV sets. The amount donated to this programme has now risen to R 193 million. The program aims to electrify 16,000 schools over the next 5 years.

SOLCEN is an NGO member of the South African National NGO Coalition. SOLCEN has ambitious plans for further projects involving solar collectors, solar water-pumping, hybrid systems, battery-charging systems, biomass, development of standards and testing, and establishment of a demonstration center. Publications on wind speed and solar radiation values are available, as are design manuals.

More information:
J.A. Opperman, Monica van Coller,
SOLCEN, Solar Center, PO Box 99761, Gasfontein East 0060 Pretoria, South Africa.
Ph: +27-12-9931921 or -3491607
fax: +27-12-9931921 or -3492662
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ISSUE #26 (855KB) 18 pages (1999-08-01)
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