iShack – upgrading housing in South Africa. 

Stellenbosch University researchers are using solar power to improve life in a large informal settlement near Cape Town. 

Christmas came early for the Mthalo family in 2014. While their neighbours in the unserviced Enkanini informal settlement shuffle around in candlelight, Lungiswa and Victor Mthalo and their two children expect to be sitting in front of their new flatscreen television – powered by a solar panel on the roof of their shack.

Enkanini informal settlement is a collection of about 2000 shacks on a hill next to Plankenberg Industrial Estate, in the wine-making town of Stellenbosch Photograph: Alex Duval Smith/

Enkanini informal settlement is a collection of about 2000 shacks on a hill next to Plankenberg Industrial Estate, in the wine-making town of Stellenbosch Photograph: Alex Duval Smith/

Although the South African government boasts that it has built 2.8m homes in 18 years, it finally had to concede defeat in 2012 over its lofty ambition to give every citizen a bricks and mortar house. A revised programme, Breaking new ground, shifts the emphasis to “in situ upgrading” of housing, including 400,000 shacks. The Mthalo family’s iShack – “improved shack” – is an attempt by a group of academics to demonstrate how this can be done in an environmentally friendly way.

The best thing about having solar power is the time it saves me,” says Victor, 28, a painter who built his shack in Enkanini in May 2011 after his sister, who lives in a brick house in neighbouring Kayamandi township, could no longer accommodate him. “I bought three metres of zinc sheeting from the hardware store and built myself a shack,” he says. “But I regularly had to go over to my sister’s place and spend three or four hours charging my mobile phone.


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In October 2011, researchers from Stellenbosch University’s sustainability institute offered Victor and two others from Enkanini’s 8,000 population the chance to join the iShack experiment. They lined his walls with flattened milk cartons and sheets of cardboard, enlarged a window, put a solar panel on his roof, hung a lightbulb from his ceiling and provided a socket for his mobile charger. “My shack became much more pleasant. It used to get very cold in winter and so hot in summer – 45C – that you could not stay indoors in the daytime. Now it is bearable,” he says.

The researchers recently returned, bearing more solar panels, the new television set, an outside light and sensor, a DVD player, a radio and a fridge-freezer. It is debatable whether Victor, who is a painter, and Lungiswa, who is a fruit picker, have the means to buy or rent DVDs regularly. They will only occasionally have enough cash to buy food in such quantities that it needs to be kept cool or frozen before being eaten. And they do not have a toilet or running water.

But Mark Swilling, Stellenbosch professor of sustainable development, says the exercise is about empowerment potential rather than visible mod cons. Enkanini, 40km from Cape Town, is not a legally recognised housing area. Its 2,000 shacks cling precariously to a windswept hillside behind an industrial area, and it is unlikely that electricity provider Eskom or the local municipality are going to do much to upgrade it.

Getting people organised around their own wellbeing and improvements builds capacity. Building them houses with no input from them does not,” says Swilling. He adds that 14% of South Africans live in shacks, and the high cost of well-positioned urban land means the figure is unlikely to fall.

As part of their efforts to encourage Enkanini residents to become self-sustaining, the academics are also working on “green” sanitation projects for the area, vegetable gardens and bio-organic waste-management systems. They believe each element can be given a profitable edge. As the iShack project is expanded, the solar panels will be offered on a hire-purchase basis with the rental fee going to an entrepreneur trained in repairing the equipment – and also able to cut off customers for non-payment.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given the sustainability institute $250,000 (£153,000) to scale up the experiment, build 100 more iShacks by the middle of 2013, and develop a business model.

Victor’s first impressions are that the iShack is “marvellous“. But he is a little worried about his family’s Christmas television viewing: the solar specialists who delivered his new flatscreen television forgot to supply an aerial.

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The above article by Alex Duval Smith first published on and reproduced in the Habitat for Humanity online newsletter ‘A decent place to live.