Secondhand shipping containers retrofitted to be energy sources


By Lynne Smit for WWF

Most people would agree that the best source of renewable energy is from our sun, but harvesting that energy and converting it into usable electricity is out of reach for the estimated 585 million people who are living without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Photovoltaic panels are expensive, and the rural homes where 70% of the people without electricity are living, are not wired to access the electricity.

The Solar Turtle is a secondhand shipping container which has been retrofitted with a number of portable solar panels. These are placed outside the container during the day, and the energy they generate charges batteries which are stored inside the container.

The batteries have been placed in easily portable, recycled plastic bottles. The lid of the bottle has been converted into a 12V socket into which a switch box can be plugged. When the battery is flat, the bottle can be taken back to the Solar turtle and exchanged for one which is fully charged.

“Currently most of these people rely on kerosene which is expensive,” says James van der Walt. “LED lights are much cleaner and cheaper.”

Van der Walt has big plans for the Solar Turtle. He calls the people who will run the Solar Turtles ‘turtlepreneurs’ – a tongue-in-cheek moniker which shouldn’t detract from the potential for growth that each one of these containers offers.

“The Solar Turtle will be a seed from which other businesses can grow,” he says. “They will provide electricity for hairdressers and tailors and a myriad of other small-scale businesses that will serve the community.”

He also envisages a future where Solar Turtles can be linked together in a mini grid, providing electricity for thousands of people.

Research commissioned by the WWF estimates that if the Solar Turtle could achieve a market penetration of 100 villages by 2024, it could serve 720 000 people and provide a reduction in CO2 emissions from kerosene of 7000 tonnes.

As with many social entrepreneurship ventures, Van der Walt has found that his biggest challenge has been in finding funding.

“South Africa needs a strong corporate social responsibility policy. The social business entity is also not yet recognised here. It should have similar privileges to NGOs,” he says.

Another challenge to the Solar Turtle’s success comes from the national electricity supplier, Eskom.

“They are subsidised so they can sell electricity at a loss. This makes it difficult to complete. It also gives us an opportunity, in that we can only work in rural areas that Eskom has trouble reaching.”

Van der Walt’s strongest motivation is a desire to be part of the shift to sustainability that he sees as vital for our planet.

“I see the damage we are doing to ourselves and to our planet. I came to realise that if you want to change the world you have to start with yourself. I want to be part of the revolution, (or evolution) of the human race. If we want to live in paradise then it is up to us to create it.”

* Solar Turtle is one of three innovative solution providers which was recognised in the first WWF Climate Solvers awards to be granted in South Africa. The awards were established six years ago in Sweden and are designed to support small businesses that are developing and commercialising innovations that reduce carbon emissions and boost energy.

Note: This article was produced for WWF by Lynne Smit of Hippo Communications, to showcase the excellent work being done by recipients of the WWF Climate Solvers awards. 




SciBraai, a proudly South African NPO dedicated to science journalism, communication and outreach. SciBraai began on Heritage Day 2013 - Anina Mumm and Engela Duvenage in 2013 launched the website,, to feature stories about South African research, technology and innovation, and the people behind the discoveries. This blog welcomes all South Africans to go behind the scenes of local science and exploration endeavors. It’s a place to share stories about the scientists themselves and the interesting, little-known activities that are often left out of research journals. A place to learn more about the stuff that makes South African science and its people tick. A place to feel inspired about what South Africans are discovering on home soil and abroad. Because local is lekker, no matter what language you use. SciBraai's following has grown in the past years, and we are now on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We've also begun organising real-life braai's where we share round-the-fire stories about South African science and scientists.

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