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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

South African Settlement Welcomes the iShack


The iShack prototype at the Enkanini settlement outside Cape Town has cross-ventilation, a sloping roof and solar power.
One of the first sights greeting every tourist riding from the airport into Cape Town is a wall of corrugated iron and wood on either side of the highway. Before Table Mountain rises on the horizon in all its majesty, it’s the clusters of shacks that make an initial impression.

South Africa has several thousand informal settlements, many of them technically illegal, comprising well over a million dwellings. While these are a legacy of the country’s system of racial apartheid, the problem has only worsened since apartheid was dismantled, partly because of weak political will, many say. The government, led by the African National Congress, acknowledges that the demand for state-sponsored housing has outstripped supply. So efforts have shifted toward providing services in the settlements and upgrading existing shelters.

Enter the wryly named iShack, or “improved shack,” a prototype built by a group of South African researchers to help address the problem. The main goal of the design, which is malleable, is to equip informal homes with solar panels and energy-saving features that make them more livable. With a rooftop photovoltaic panel, shelters can generate enough electricity to power three lights, a cellphone charger and a motion-sensitive alarm. (Security is a pressing concern in the settlements.)

Of course, the premise behind these upgrades is that the settlements are here to stay.

“South Africa is experiencing some of the highest rates of urbanization in the world,” said Berry Wessels, the project’s field coordinator. “Housing backlog is growing. The government cannot provide houses for everybody.” He describes his team’s invention as the first attempt at in-situ upgrades in the settlements.

Mark Swilling, a development expert who is the academic director of the Sustainability Institute, and a student, Andreas Keller, initiated the project, which is based at Stellenbosch University. The campus lies just outside Cape Town in the heart of wine country, but against this affluent backdrop, settlements are scattered across the landscape. Among them is Enkanini, Cape Town’s largest, equipped with fewer than 40 water taps and 60 toilets — and no electricity — for several thousand people. This is home base for the introduction of the iShack.

Although many dwellings in Enkanini are flimsily constructed, Mr. Wessels found that housing wasn’t the main concern for residents. “Energy was the biggest issue that came up,” he said. “People are quite proud of their shacks.” In fact, the level of organization and sense of community that exist in informal settlements after many years of growth challenges the perception of outsiders that they are simply chaotic blots on the landscape. After years of waiting for the government to act, many residents have come to see the “temporary” shelters as home.

Recognizing this, the researchers were able to focus their project on energy improvements. The iShack package involves a pay-as-you-go system, with an outdoor digital meter counting hours of usage. The team has trained community members to to install and repair the meters and to collect payments. They envision what they call an “energy spaza,” spaza being South African slang for an informal shop that springs up in a township.

The iShack prototype has strategically placed windows that draw a cooling draft through the interior in the summer, and the roof is sloped so that rainwater can be collected in winter. A floor of recycled bricks and one wall made up of mud, straw, and sand help conserve energy. Mr. Wessels said the dwelling was 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler in the daytime and 2 degrees warmer at night than other shacks. The team is also building a terrace for the shack out of recycled tires and hope to create a vegetable garden there.

The prototype houses a local woman and her three children, chosen by community members because the family’s former home used to flood when it rained.

This iShack concept also envisions retrofits of existing shacks, given that the team recognizes that not every house can be entirely rebuilt. But for now, the team is focusing on proving that their project can succeed within the next year and a half, a trial period set by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the sources of their funding, to determine whether the project can be expanded. Another 100 iShacks are to be installed in Enkanini during that period. With more funding, the invention could make its way to Ghana and Tanzania as well.

If anything, Mr. Wessels hopes that the iShack changes a culture of waiting – for government upgrades, for ownership, for change in South Africa, which can all feel like distant realities. “If you let people design and improve their own lives,” he said, they will have a greater motivation to fight for legal tenure, and a level of permanence
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