iShack ushers change for slum dwellers

A professor and academic director at Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute along with one of his students has come up with a short-term solution to the informal settlement problem that is so synonymous with the South African landscape.

Prof Mark Swilling and Andreas Keller, along with a team of intellectuals, have developed the “iShack”, an improved shack that offers renewable energy solutions and is designed to improve living conditions. The iShack prototype is equipped with a photovoltaic solar panel capable of producing enough electricity to power three lights, a mobile phone charger and an outdoor motion detector spotlight, which reduces the risk of crime and helps people feel safer in their homes.
Keller initially researched the iShack concept for his master’s degree thesis. “The idea to upgrade shacks by improving them where they are has been something that Prof Swilling has been thinking about for a while,” explained Keller. “He was my academic supervisor for my master’s studies in sustainable development and suggested I look at how to upgrade a current shack through cheap, readily available materials. From this emerged the idea that if one had the possibility to build a new structure, how would one do this better? These questions were asked within numerous contexts, namely a shift in housing policy and discourse towards one that favours upgrading of informal settlements (as opposed to relocation); a discussion on urban energy poverty; and inadequate pro-poor energy policies. These different strands were brought together in the conceptualisation of the improved shack (iShack).”
According to the UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013 report, 62% of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in slums. Such dwellings are characterised by poor living conditions and inadequate access to infrastructure such as basic energy, sanitation and water services. South Africa is not exempt from these figures.
“The South African government faces huge challenges in providing houses and services to the lower socio-economic groups as it cannot keep up with the growing demand and the resultant backlog,” explains Berry Wessels, a master’s student and one of the team members of the iShack Project. “The iShack is an interim step towards long-term development as it will not hinder the agenda for upgrading, but will actually speed up the process of formal development.”  
After being funded by the National Research Foundation, the first iShack was built in October 2011 and introduced in the Enkanini informal settlement, located in the town of Stellenbosch, outside Cape Town.
It drew the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was so impressed with the idea that it provided grant funding for a pilot project to determine if the improved shack system can be applied on a large scale.
The grant funds will see an estimated 100 iShacks, which cost about R5,300 ($578.11) being erected over the next year. Although the cost of the iShack is almost double that of a typical shack, the quality of life that comes with it is much better.