Your Piece of the Sun: energy poverty and gender in urban South Africa

‘Your Piece of the Sun’ is a documentary which addresses the challenges of energy, gender and poverty in urban South Africa. It examines solutions and new approaches to energy service delivery.

Aerial view of Enkanini: a still from the film.

As evidenced globally, South Africa too is rapidly urbanizing with more and more people moving to cities in search of better opportunities. South African cities have historically developed along sprawling low density lines, with the poor living on the periphery of our cities far from employment and access to other social resources whereby the poor even today remain marginalized.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals addresses sustainable cities and access to safe and affordable energy amongst others. High on South Africa’s developmental agenda is poverty alleviation and the need for all its citizens to have access to clean, affordable and reliable forms of modern energy.

This documentary illustrates that despite much developmental progress since the onset of democracy in 1994 in South Africa, the country still has a long way to go. 47% of the nation are considered energy poor in that they don’t have access to safe and affordable energy – a basic human need. Many more people have access to electricity, but many households cannot afford to use electricity to meet all their energy needs and therefore continue to use inferior, polluting and unsafe fuels.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of unsafe fuels, as they are generally the primary users of energy in the household, i.e. they use energy for cleaning, cooking and care of children and families. In low-income households, women generally tend to have little control over household resources and decision-making and therefore have minimal influence on energy purchases and the choice of fuels used in the household. For instance women can spend several hours a day gathering and fetching wood – this is not safe and takes away from valuable productive work.

For many people in townships and informal settlements, lighting provides a feeling of safety from crime. Children need light to study and finding sustainable solutions is essential. Many municipalities and NGOs have worked to develop new and alternative solutions to energy service delivery. Some of the examples portrayed in the documentary include:

Daniswa Klaas conveys how much better her life is since moving into the new Joe Slovo housing settlement in Cape Town. She says ‘I feel so safe and I’m very happy’.

Joe Slovo, originally an informal shack settlement, is now an established community with formal houses and services, demonstrating a new approach to government delivered homes involving public and private partnerships, including sustainable energy interventions – notably solar water heaters, insulated ceilings, efficient lighting, roof overhangs and high density dwellings in close proximity to the city centre.

Sylvia Mpitolo describes living in Enkanini, an informal shack settlement in Stellenbosch. Life is much easier and safer for her since the implementation of the solar home systems, by the iShack Project. Prior to this her shack was burned down through the use of unsafe fuels. Now she can monitor her electricity consumption and make informed decisions. Is there enough electricity to watch TV for two hours and have lights on and charge her phone or must she make a choice? But above all, the lights outside her shack allow her to feel safer – safe from the ‘gangsters’ who she can see arriving.

The iShack project is an example of innovation and change through partnerships with the intention of upgrading an informal settlement using green technology, namely solar electricity as well as building local enterprise capacity.

Meanwhile, in Polokwane in the north of South Africa, the local municipality with the support of Sustainable Energy Africa has rolled out a project using hot boxes. These are insulated bags that allow food to cook once it has been brought to the boil at no further energy cost. These bags can also keep food cool. The intention is also to develop local enterprise as well as provide low cost energy solutions for the poor. Recipients were amazed at the possibilities. Magdalene Dikgale said she didn’t quite understand how it worked but she did understand that she could place the boiled food in the bag and come back later and find it was cooked.

In the more rural areas, the municipality has found a way to support homes that have no access to grid electricity. They have introduced safer cooking fuels and solar lamps for lighting. Lesiba Kunutu from Aganang explained how solar lamps have enabled her daughter to study and pass senior school with distinctions and she is now enrolled at university and studying for a law degree.

This film points to some of the innovative work happening within South Africa, and the ways that people can live more productive, healthier and safer lives. But it is clear that the work has to come not only from NGOs and municipal support but very much needs the commitment of the community and people themselves. The need to understand that the solutions are not linear but require an open-mind to what is possible and co-operation between all is key. Without these elements, such projects will not be sustainable into the future. This film is about hope and new ways of finding solutions to the problems and challenges of energy poverty.

This film was commissioned under the Africa’s Energy Future project which is funded by Heinrich Boell Stiftung. It is available for viewing at:

Words by Yachika Reddy (Project Manager)
Sustainable Energy Africa