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SPOTLIGHT - ENTREPRENEUR >

Thinking green and professing environmental sustainability is one thing. Doing your bit for the community and environment is a totally different story. James van der Walt, founder of the company SolarTurtle, is someone who aims to implement what others only talk about.

SolarTurtle is a renewable energy solution which offers entrepreneurs sustainable business solutions with an eco-friendly footprint. The aim of the company is to enhance entrepreneurial business skills within the community, as well as to provide more cost-efficient and effective energy solutions for current business owners and community outreach initiatives: mobile clinics, banks, and the like.

Renewable Energy Expert - James van der Walt

“I come from a nature-loving family,” says James. “My parents, my two sisters, and I were avid bird watchers and loved spending time outdoors. I was born in Pretoria, South Africa. My life journey took a tour via Ireland, New Zealand, and eventually back to South Africa, and I’ve finally settled in the beautiful town of Stellenbosch.

I am, by all accounts, a techy, if you can call it such. My tertiary qualifications and work experience were mostly in the software and renewable engineering field. My stint in New Zealand was a time of introspection. I did a lot of thinking and meditating about the direction my life had taken and what my future goals in life were. I wanted to make a difference, to inspire. As stated before, I am close to nature, so environmental awareness was one my interests.

In 2011, I decided to head out and go and implement my goals on home soil. I had a two-sided dream – help to uplift the community whilst at the same time creating environmental sustainability. Stellenbosch University offered me the opportunity to complete my master’s in Renewable Energy, which allowed me to implement my research and test its viability.

During this period of my life, the SolarTurtle was born. My main resource for this idea was the sun, a natural, untapped resource South Africa has so much of.

Automatic SolarTurtle Hub (Container - Cape Town, South Africa)
Automatic SolarTurtle Hub (Container – Cape Town, South Africa)

South Africa is a multi-cultural country. We have people from all walks of life. That said, there are also a lot of extremely poor communities, with people fighting a daily battle for survival. This tugged at my heart strings and fired my passion for community development.

I based my business concept on the turtle – the hard outer shell with a soft, sensitive inside. The first turtles were made from containers. The solar panels open up to afford maximum exposure to the sun. In the evening, they can be folded away for safety. This offers protection from human and natural elements.

FDN Life Magazine - James van der Walt - THE TURTLE KEEPER - SolarTurtle Unfolding
SolarTurtle unfolding

These SolarTurtle Hubs (aka “mama” turtles) are a bit pricey but are ideal for use in mobile clinics, banks, and the like. 

FDN Life Magazine - James van der Walt - THE TURTLE KEEPER - SolarTurtle ready to use
SolarTurtle read for action

The mama turtles are more expensive to get off the ground and set up, so we utilise a lot of donor funding for our community projects.

Start-up funding in South Africa is difficult to access. There are a lot of start-up ventures that pitch ideas for funding, so competition is fierce.

Angel funders and VC funding also provide funding for business start-ups. In countries where these are somewhat rare – as in the case of South Africa – we have found that participating in business pitching competitions can also work.

The problem I have found with funding is that a lot of these investors require you to prove business stability before they will add money to your project. This requires your business to operate for approximately 1 to 5 years to gain enough exposure and experience to provide the statistical analysis required. It’s a typical chicken-and-egg scenario – you need projects to gain experience, but you need experience to win projects.

This made me realise that sometimes you must work for extraordinarily little or no compensation at all just to gain the experience you need to be able to pitch for (better) paying projects.

As we aim to continuously improve and evolve our business, our second design was the SolarTurtle Mini (a fibreglass unit). These were installed in the mountains of Lesotho. This terrain is harsh and difficult to access, so we had to develop a lightweight prototype that could be transported or carried up the mountains.

FDN Life Magazine 2021 - SolarTurtle being transported
SolarTurtle being transported

Throughout all of this, I was not able to realise one part of my dream – creating a self-sustaining energy-based social business. The cost per unit had to come down considerably. My longing for community upliftment inspired the current batch of turtles – the SolarTurtle Sparks (aka baby turtles).

The goal behind the babies is to have them more affordable for small informal traders, such as street vendors. I want them able to be utilised to enhance the livelihoods of people – small business owners, etc.

As stated before, my aim is to help the community and to develop the turtles in such a way that the company can grow and sustain itself – people, planet, profit. The SolarTurtle Spark prototypes were launched at the end of July 2020 in East London.

Training and development of our staff complement is also an important aim of our business. We train our traders in all aspects of running their own solar kiosk.

FDN Life Magazine 2021 - James & Charlene receives Design Foundation Award
James & Charlene receives Design Foundation Award

Charlene, my business partner, and I are also hard at work creating software and apps for the solar turtles. We are also brainstorming some incentive programmes to reward owners and motivate other members to join our turtle family.

The incentive scheme mentioned above also promotes healthy competition between vendors and traders to encourage them to grow and promote their solar business ventures.

With the software programme, we want to incorporate e-learning and e-motivation for our vendors. I want them to have as many learning and growth opportunities as possible.

Business growth and development is a natural consequence of an evolving entrepreneurial venture. Many areas in Africa do not have the financial capabilities to make renewable energy a viable solution. That is why we have decided to set our sights on East Africa – specifically Kenya – and hope to expand soon.

FDN Life Magazine 2021 - SolarTurtle in Lesotho
SolarTurtle in Lesotho

Our SolarTurtle family is spread across South Africa. We do not always have the luxury of pop-in meetings with each other. One tradition we started was our Wednesday morning coffee meet-ups. We do this via Skype and chat about everything people-related – no shop talk! It is important for me to get to know my people on a personal level. We are complex beings, not only cogs in the business wheel.

For business-related issues, Skype and Zoom meetings are the norm. Timesheets and Trello Boards help us track task deliverables and keep everyone up to date with the projects at hand.

Remote working does not necessarily mean you have to take the “human” away from your business; utilise whatever resources are available to stay connected. Remember – you still have a job. You need to “get up, dress up, and show up,” as is so fondly quoted.

Starting my own business was one of the more difficult and rewarding adventures I have undertaken. Make no mistake, this is not an easy road to tread, and not everyone wants to venture down this path. But South Africa is a country that needs more like-minded individuals – people who want to take this leap. Every new business means new job opportunities for people.

If I could rewrite my life story, I would do this again. It is my passion. Life has shaped me into the individual that I am. I want to give my all for my business and my community. I want the turtles to grow, and I want my turtle family to grow. I want to empower people, and I want to save the planet.”

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