UCT researcher wins Newton Prize 2020

06 November 2020 | Story Nicole Forrest. Photo Lerato Maduna. Voice Neliswa Sosibo. Read time 8 min.
Novel research into using renewable energy in off-grid informal settlements in South Africa has won UCT’s Dr Jiska de Groot (pictured) and her international co-lead Dr Federico Caprotti a £500 000 Newton Prize to continue their sustainability work.
Novel research into using renewable energy in off-grid informal settlements in South Africa has won UCT’s Dr Jiska de Groot (pictured) and her international co-lead Dr Federico Caprotti a £500 000 Newton Prize to continue their sustainability work.

Energy poverty is a major challenge in South Africa. Many of the 1.25 million households in informal settlements rely on burning paraffin or wood to cook and provide light and warmth in their homes. Not only do these methods of energy production create health and safety hazards, but they also limit the economic and educational opportunities of the people – most commonly women and children – living in these settlements.

To provide workable solutions that address these challenges, a research team jointly led by Dr Jiska de Groot, senior research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), and Dr Federico Caprotti of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom (UK), has developed a new approach to providing power to these communities.

Titled “Urban transformation in South Africa through co-designing energy services provision pathways”, the project focuses on providing clean, safe and reliable energy to those who live in informal settlements. The team’s innovative approach to resolving energy poverty earned them the Chair’s Prize at the prestigious Newton Prize awards on Wednesday, 4 November 2020.

Leveraging sustainability to drive development

In a video released by the Newton Fund, Dr De Groot explained how the project aims to resolve the lack of access to energy that creates a barrier to development worldwide.

“Our project is trying to solve the global challenge of access to affordable and clean energy for all. Energy is an enabler of development. The lack of energy doesn’t just create health impacts, but also huge inequalities and opportunities for people to develop,” she noted.

To overcome the challenges caused by this lack of access to energy, as well as those posed by policy, legal and jurisdictional barriers, the team developed a novel approach to electricity supply in off-grid areas. The solution involves using renewable energy in combination with sustainable, pay-as-you-go business models.

Having identified off-grid informal settlements in Cape Town, the team worked with community representatives, non-governmental organisations and UK energy organisations to address the challenges in each settlement.


“Safe and stable electricity through solar minigrids contributes in a significant way to providing adequate and safe housing.”

The researchers devised a system that paired solar-powered minigrids with app-based business models to provide energy for multiple uses. This led to the testing of the minigrid in informal settlements in Cape Town, where the team was able to produce electricity that is up to 40% cheaper than that from current suppliers.

“Safe and stable electricity through solar minigrids can contribute in a significant way to providing adequate and safe housing,” said De Groot.

“This is because solar microgrid-delivered electricity enables the provision of safe lighting and safe electricity connections, which avoids the need to have illegal, unsafe electricity connections to the national grid. It also avoids the need to burn candles or other combustible materials for indoor lighting, reducing fire risk not just for the household but for the wider, usually densely populated informal settlements.”

Playing it cool

Following on from the success of the minigrid project, as well as their achievement at the 2020 Newton Prize awards, the team is now looking to focus on providing electricity for refrigeration in these off-grid communities.

Access to refrigeration allows for economic and time savings, as well as reducing the risk of falling sick from food-borne illnesses. As a result, refrigeration is one of the most sought-after applications for electricity in informal settlements.

Focusing on this need, the research team launched the UMBANE initiative, which aims to “power innovative sustainable businesses with productive use appliances in South African informal settlements at the margins of the grid”. The programme will be implemented in conjunction with Zonke Energy, a minigrid producer; sustainability consulting agency Thrie Energy Collective; and social enterprise Story Room.

The aptly named project – umbane means “electricity” in isiXhosa – will concentrate on how renewable energy technologies like solar-powered minigrids can drive sustainable businesses that require refrigeration in off-grid areas. In addition to generating health benefits, the scheme will also empower local entrepreneurs to earn an income and create employment opportunities in their communities.

Fostering innovation through collaboration

The Newton Prize was established to encourage international researchers to collaborate and create partnerships to tackle key global challenges, including food security, human health and climate change.

Professor Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London and chair of the Newton Prize Committee, pointed out that the fund recognises the “power of collaboration and capacity building within countries with an emphasis on important cutting-edge research that matters”.

“We know international collaboration produces research with higher impact, papers that are more widely read, and insights and innovation that come from diversity of approach. New and fruitful networks between researchers can provide vital career opportunities and lead to more expansive projects,” she said.


“New and fruitful networks between researchers can provide vital career opportunities and lead to more expansive projects.”

Focusing on using science, research and innovation to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Newton Prize enables international research partners to further their work on areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet. Applicants contending for the Chair’s Prize had to demonstrate how their project addresses one of three SDGs in particular: Good Health and Wellbeing, Gender Equality, or Sustainable Cities and Communities.

With their research into how renewable energy can be used to power informal settlements in off-grid parts of South Africa contributing towards creating sustainable cities and communities, De Groot and Caprotti’s team will receive £500 000 to continue their work and fund the UMBANE initiative.

Caprotti noted that the partnership with UCT and the opportunity it provides to identify and address real-world problems has been invaluable in creating a workable solution for energy poverty.

“Working with informal settlement communities from the start of the project has highlighted the potential for projects of this kind to achieve real, measurable and replicable change,” he said.

Previously, the lack of data relating to the energy needs of informal settlements impeded effective investigation into creating effective energy policy for poorer communities. Following this project and the UMBANE initiative, there is now a clear path to reducing the reliance on harmful, polluting fuels while supporting economic activity and refining the long-term energy policy in South Africa.

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