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'White City'

By South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) on 6 February 2017
Gaynor Papier’s White City home, in Hopefield, is next on the list of those to receive a ceiling as part of the home improvement project that is funded with revenue generated by the local wind farm.

When the turbines of the Hopefield Wind Farm first started spinning in December 2014, a percentage of the revenue earned from feeding power into South Africa’s electricity grid was immediately channeled towards injecting life into the town’s sluggish economy, and investing in bettering the lives of people in the local community. By Leonie Joubert.

Marco ‘Bokkie’ Maarman points to an imaginary line just beneath where the kitchen wall in Gaynor Papier’s two-bedroomed home meets the corrugated asbestos roof sheets. 

‘Just there,’ he says, ‘that’s where I’ll put the ceiling.’

First, the carpenter will attach thin pine planks to the walls, before suspending the light-weight compressed foam ceiling boards from the roof beams. Then he’ll neaten off the edges with a foam cornice. The ceiling will be blindingly white against the slightly aged walls, but a lick of the right varnish, and they’ll have a convincing knotty pine finish, says Maarman. 

Aesthetics, though, are secondary. What Papier and her family need is a bulkhead between themselves and the elements, because with only a thin roof sheet on their house, the place turns into an oven during summer. Wintertime, when the rains come, these houses are damp and cold. A ceiling can take the edge off these extremes, making the place more comfortable to live in, but also  reducing the health hazards of cooking or heating with open flame and paraffin. It also cuts energy costs dramatically, both for cooking, heating water, or warming a room.   

Maarman reckons he’ll be able to get cracking on the job in Papier’s house in a week or so, once his materials arrive from the suppliers. After two years of working as a hired carpenter on a project to ‘retrofit’ low-cost houses like this with ceilings, this will be the second home he will do in his new capacity as an independent contractor in the small Western Cape town of Hopefield. 

Papier’s home is in White City, a neighbourhood on the edge of Hopefield. Her suburb has no pretensions of being a metropolis, but the few rows of dinky cement-block houses are whitewashed to neaten their raw, unplastered walls.

Like many of the state-built low-cost housing schemes around the country, the houses here in Olienhout Street are all cut from the same cloth: two small bedrooms, a bathroom, and the front door opening directly into a tiny kitchen. Many have a basic water point and drain, and are connected to the grid, but few have a water-heating geyser. Tight state budgets meant cutting ‘frills’ like ceilings and hot water systems.

State partners with private energy sector 

Two years into operation, the Hopefield Wind Farm was one of the first to go up as part of the South African Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme, an initiative that started in 2011 and has outsourced some of its new electricity generation capacity to private energy companies. The programme will see a series of 96 different plants - concentrated solar power, PV, biomass, landfill, wind, and small hydro - constructed around the country, feeding greener electricity directly into the national grid.

Part of the agreement between the state and all the private energy firms is that, for the first 20 years of operations, the power plants will set aside a percentage of the revenue earned from selling electricity to the grid, and invest it in communities living within 50km of the plant. 

The Hopefield farm is a 67 MW capacity plant a few kilometres outside of town, with 37 turbines owned by Umoya Energy. Since the farm’s blades first started turning in December 2014, Umoya’s development funds have gone towards four initiatives: the Hopefield Home Improvement Project (HIP); a conservation initiative where they have set aside some Umoya-owned land adjacent to the plant for conservation, and are paying local contractors to clear alien invasive plants; the funding of a teaching post at the local primary school, along with a teacher’s assistant; and a bursary scheme for school leavers wanting to make their way into tertiary studies. 

The HIP was modelled on a housing upgrade initiative that was first piloted in the Cape Town suburb of Khayelitsha, about 130km south of here, which has a mix of low-cost state housing and informal structures. Run by the non-governmental organisation SouthSouthNorth, the ‘Kuyasa’ project retrofitted low-cost state-built houses with ceilings so that houses could be insulated and more thermally efficient and comfortable. They installed solar water heating systems, and energy efficient lighting.

On the success of that, Umoya partnered with SouthSouthNorth to run the same kind of home upgrades here in Hopefield. Both Papier and Maarman - the White City resident, and the carpenter - are beneficiaries of this project. 

For Papier, the HIP means she gets a basic upgrade to her home - a ceiling, a solar water heater, a few extra plug points, and energy efficient lightbulbs throughout. For Maarman, it means not only a few years of employment as an artisan, it’s also a chance to be equipped to start and run his own business. 

Training the ‘tradesmen’ 

Maarman first heard that something was up when he saw posters around town late in 2014.

Wanted, the adverts said, electricians, plumbers, carpenters. No formal training needed, but experience a plus. Something like that, Maarman recalls. The new arrival in town, Umoya Energy, was looking to hire ‘tradesmen’ from within the community. The self-taught carpenter applied and was amongst 21 people who were recruited by Umoya and sent to a college in Cape Town for a month’s training; 18 of these were then hired by Umoya to work on the HIP. Over two years, their goal was to do the home upgrades on 591 houses in poorer neighbourhoods in Hopefield. 

This ‘phase one’ came to an end in November 2016. Then, the next round of training: basic entrepreneurial skills, like how to draw up a budget, manage money, order from suppliers, market one’s business, hire and pay staff, and so on.

Then, ‘phase two’: three of the team were hand-picked to become part of an incubation scheme. One of each - an electrician, a plumber, and a carpenter - was selected to become an independent contractor to the next round of HIP upgrades. This time, 350 houses; and Maarman got the carpentry gig. Now, instead of turning up each day as a salaried employee, he has to run the ceiling installation side of the upgrades himself: he orders the stock, hires the assistants, invoices Umoya for the number of houses done each month; and pays his team and his suppliers.

When Maarman knocks on Joyce Cleophas’ door, two houses down from Papier’s, she’s not expecting visitors, but happily lets the carpenter in so he can show off his handy work. In the second week of January 2017, Maarman and the HIP crew did the retrofitting work on this house. This was the very first house to get an upgrade as part of the second phase of the project. And it was his first gig as a contractor on Umoya’s enterprise incubator scheme. 

He’s still learning the ropes of how to run his own business, but Maarman has a mentor on speed dial on his phone, and three years in which to learn. And next week, once the suppliers deliver more materials, he’ll get started on Papier’s house.

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  • Joyce Cleophas, resident of the neighbourhood of White City in Hopefield, was the first house that ‘Bokkie’ Maarman kitted out with a ceiling in his new role as carpentry contractor on the home improvement project.
  • Marco ‘Bokkie’ Maarman is part of an enterprise incubator scheme that will train the self-taught carpenter in the basics of running his own business.
23-hopefield-wind-farm-img0179 Wind turbines in the Hopefield Wind Farm, about 130km north of Cape Town.
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