The Nuts and Volts of A Solar-Powered Female Entrepreneur
In 2015, SolarTurtle CEO Lungelwa Tyali was trying to make sure that her rural community had the resources it needed to thrive. 3 short years later and she has taken the reins, and is taking one of Africa’s brightest and most innovative technology companies to the next level, and to many more communities.
Lungelwa Tyali – Lungi to her friends – was born and raised in Elliotdale, a small, tight-knit community of roughly 800 households about 50 km outside of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. Being so far removed from major metropolitan areas Elliotdale, much like hundreds of other small, rural communities across South Africa, lacks some of the basic services you and I are so accustomed to – like roads, running water and (that element none of us, our smartphones or internet connections can do without) decent, reliable electricity.
When the local high school started producing exceptional results, Elliotdale found itself blooming into a densely populated student village, as children from far and wide were drawn inwards. And, still no power.
Then something fortuitous happened… Lungi met up with the founder and designer of a rather smart solar powered solution, James van der Walt from SolarTurtle. The SolarTurtle is a self-contained battery charging station, locked safely away inside an inexpensive, durable shipping container, which means it can be placed pretty much anywhere in the country, bringing (almost) free, wireless power along with it. And James was doing his best to get it into as many underprivileged areas as possible.
Lungi, who was looking for something to inspire her passion as she decided what she wanted her career to look like, became the local Elliotdale SolarTurtle shopkeeper – or their very first ‘turtlepreneur’! Here they rented charging time for the students’ phones during class time and sold electricity to their families in retrofitted, rechargeable milk bottles for home lighting, laptops, stovetops and anything else that requires current (each has a lifespan of 20 hours). Through this she ensured that her community was powered, and fell in love with the idea of empowering others.
She quickly picked up skills in electronics and renewable energy and understanding of the social value of both. James, who needed someone with her intelligence and passion to help make SolarTurtle into the powerhouse it needed to be for millions of Africans, was just as quick to snap her up, making her the first SolarTurtle employee, and its CEO.
Since then they’ve handed the SolarTurtle kiosk over to the school who now benefit from the profits, while the children are kept on a ‘shopkeeper rotation’ so they learn about the real nuts and volts of business (stock control, processes, cash flow) first-hand. Today they are also an internet café and print shop. You can even buy your airtime along with a nice, cold Coke.
But where the business is now isn’t as exciting as where, under the guiding hand of Lungelwa, SolarTurtle is going to be.
Their focus is firmly on R&D and we should be able to see new iterations of SolarTurtle popping up very soon. We’ll be able to see the BabyTurtle, a much smaller, more portable version, charging phones at taxi ranks as people wait for their rides to arrive. We’ll be able to see the bigger, automatic SolarTurtle that is being piloted at the Helping Hands Community Centre in the Cape, which can be opened or closed via an app from kilometres away in under 26 seconds. We will also be able to see Lesotho lighting up, as an EU grant has given them the ability to build 10 brand new SolarTurtles. You will be able to see PowerTurtles replacing the dirty, toxic and very noisy diesel generators at schools, like they have already done in Kathlehong. The PowerTurtle powers both the school and the community that surrounds it.
Ironically enough, you may even be able to see them at coal mines, who are already enquiring with Lungi for clean solutions to their energy problems.
Under her tenure, the SolarTurtle business is adding a few more successes to their scrapbook. These include winning the 2018 Nation Builder Social Innovation Challenge with LaunchLab, being a finalist in both the SAB Social Innovation Awards, the ‘Chivas, The Venture’ awards as well as being featured in the Santam Safety Ideas Challenge Season 2.
But it’s not about the awards, or the technology. Lungi is putting the ‘power’ into ‘empowerment’, through the SolarTurtle business. They’re training youths to install solar panels in homes that are tired of waiting for the government to bring it to them the traditional way. Women are running the show in all the new planned SolarTurtles, as they upskill themselves with all the skills they need to get ahead. In fact, Lungi insists on a 3-year rotational system, where the turtlepreneurs are moved out of SolarTurtles to put these new skills into their own business, while others are brought in to learn what they have.
Lungi’s vision, proudly supported by James, is to help every school and every community produce their own power, regardless of where they are. As they spread their message, their skills and their “light,” across the continent, they are really changing the lives of so many people in the way that many have talked about, but few have managed to execute on. All through some simple corrugated iron walls, an eye on innovation, and the guts to take charge.