Removing the stigma of solar heaters in SA

Solar heaters are sometimes seen as a stigma in South Africa. Image Credit: Kuyasa CDM project

The second day of the ASADI meeting kicked off with a passionate speech from Dipuo Peters, South Africa’s energy minister.

She brought up an interesting, and somewhat saddening, problem in South Africa. The South African government has been investing in solar water heaters for poor households. This has been a great success in Kayelitsha, a township near Cape Town, where researchers have verified the social benefits of such interventions.

But the roll-out of such technologies in poor areas has had an unintended consequence. Poor South Africans often assume that non-standard technologies distributed to them are inferior to those used by the majority. This has resulted in a distrust of unconventional, experimental, non-grid energy generation technologies such as solar heating.

Renewable energy – in particular solar energy – therefore needs an image boost in South Africa. The minister urged people who can afford it to invest in solar panels on their houses to stop them being a signifier for being poor.

We have not heard whether this is a problem in other African countries. In Kenya, for example, a 14-year-old boy’s home-built windmill became emblematic of African innovation a few years ago.

A stronger sense of technology ownership is clearly crucial to improve its acceptance in poor communities. Khayelitsha’s solar heaters are a badge of success for the government of South Africa and residents alike. It would be a shame if prejudice limits the uptake of solar heaters elsewhere.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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