Friday, April 26, 2013

Re-Energizing South Africa’s Slums

Energy & Poverty

Energy Needs: Khayelitsha, a community outside Cape Town, corrugated housing is the norm;
as is access to affordable energy.
Photo Credit: Saleem H. Ali
Source: NatGeo

An article, by Saleem Ali, in National Geographic says that South Africa’s slums have come up with innovative ways to provide affordable housing and provide cheap energy to its inhabitants, the majority residing in corrugated shacks with make-shift energy connections.
The sweeping slums of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town are a stark reminder of the endemic inequality that continues to haunt South Africa almost twenty years since the end of apartheid. Here we find around half a million people living in a sea of shacks that are often associated with urban blight across the developing world. Yet, the sight of these shelters made of corrugated steel and wood in an informal settlement should not necessarily evoke fatalism about this land. The typical South African shack is a versatile piece of simple engineering that only costs around $400 to buy and meets the basic needs of shelter for its residents. Nevertheless, the government recognizes the need for providing more stable housing through its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which has provided around 3 million homes to South Africans since the end of apartheid.
Those living in the shacks on less than an inflation-adjusted amount per month are entitled to apply for RDP housing, though the waiting period can be as much as 10 years. Unlike high-rise low-income housing in China, the demand in South Africa is to have a small tract of land and a hut as the residence. Human ingenuity and resilience beams through through many residents in these areas as they traverse their life journeys from shacks to RDP huts.
The energy landscape of Khayelitsha. Photograph by Saleem H. AliDuring a recent visit to Khayelitsha, while tutoring an advanced social management course (in collaboration with Cambridge University’s Sustainability Leadership Programme), I witnessed entrepreneurship in many forms that gives me renewed hope about South Africa’s development path in these settlements. At the heart of such a development trajectory is access to electricity which would allow for safe lighting; computing; and consequently opportunities for small businesses to flourish.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the informal settlements in South Africa’s urban periphery do have government control in terms of basic energy access infrastructure and some level of sanitation and waste management provisions. The power utility has provided small metered boxes for prepaid electricity credit to these shack-dwellers, and unlike most slum areas of India or Brazil, the power is largely paid for by the destitute customers as well. However, these utility connections are by no means adequate for the population density and people are forced to be creative in finding ways to serve their needs. The slum dwellers of Khayelitsha have come up with an informal market for electricity and share connections between homes which have a connection and those which do not. There are entrepreneurs who are selling small solar-powered lighting with battery packs through organizations such as the Micro Energy Alliance.
By western standards, such housing conditions might be considered primitive; and yet I remember driving around part of rural Alabama in the American south during the late 1990s and  was struck by seeing corrugated housing similar to what the photo above depicts of South Africa and the community of Khayelitsha. I am not sure if these Alabaman residents had running water and electrical connections.

The link between cheap affordable energy and reducing poverty is well known .Perhaps things have changed for such residents of the American south as they are slowly changing, through personal innovation and good will, in South Africa.

You can read the rest of the article at [NatGeo]