Poverty, the corporate sector, and South Africa's energy crisis: a solar-powered light and Internet access for those with little or no access to electricity

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 28 April 2015

Recently South Africans were shocked to find themselves in the midst of a national energy crisis. Policy decisions taken two decades ago that new capacity should be built by the private sector rather than by the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom), the South African public electricity utility since 1923, ultimately failed as electricity was too cheap and profit margins too small for private power producers to take up. Though policy change and new projects would come years later, two decades without building any new capacity has meant that since 2006 South Africans have experienced official electricity blackouts known as "loadshedding" schedules as the current infrastructure continues to buckle.

With energy firmly in the spotlight, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is slowly emerging in the private sector as one avenue that has begun to respond to these challenges. The concept of CSR, though, is still very much in its infancy in South Africa and remains essentially voluntary. A previous article discussed how the CSR concept was accessed and creatively deployed by the young company Rethaka to make a contribution to social and environmental conditions as well. Others, such as Net1 Mobile Solutions, a Johannesburg-based technology and mobile banking company that is part of the Net1 group, have also begun to direct their own CSR content to engage energy needs more specifically, especially in areas of poverty.

Net1 Mobile's Sun-e-light is a new solar-powered lamp aimed at those with little or no access to electricity. The small, compact product provides light as either a lamp or a torch, charges mobile phones, and also provides access to the Internet as a WiFi hotspot. The lamp takes eight hours to charge and provides a battery life of up to 16 hours, and will also be available for sale to the public for under R300 (US$25). The plan is to roll out 2,000 lamps initially and, depending on demand, follow with more, as well as to move manufacturing from China to South Africa.

For many corporations, such green initiatives often tend to serve corporate offices themselves and not necessarily those in places of greatest need. For this reason, initiatives such as the Sun-e-light should be welcomed, and are also pertinent to the broader society given South Africa's current energy crisis. As the concept of CSR matures, however, it also must develop a greater spatial sensibility as opposed to injections of technological advances only; for in areas of greatest need, innovative technologies that serve shared spaces and uses can have greater collective impact within communities than products directed to individual consumers only.

These are encouraging signs. Much more is still possible.

Photo: Net1 Mobile Solutions.

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