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UMBANE Project

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Addressing energy challenges using a needs-based, interdisciplinary approach

Access to energy and energy inequality are two major challenges across informal settlements globally. This coupled with the infrastructural legacies of apartheid and many communities with either no access to energy or unsafe and unreliable connections to the grid prompted the UMBANE project in Qando Qando, South Africa. Starting in 2018, this project adopted an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together a team of academics, engineers, energy consultants and entrepreneurs, seeking to provide off-grid energy solutions as a way of realising resilient urban futures.

There is often the assumption that to be connected to the grid is to be ‘developed’, therefore, to be ‘off-grid’ and unconnected is, by extension, ‘substandard’ which is simply not the case. UMBANE challenges this view by introducing solar microgrids on this more local scale, supporting this notion that ‘sustainable solutions’ will not look the same everywhere so cannot, therefore, be implemented universally unmodified. For the UMBANE team, it was paramount to adopt a needs-based approach and address energy access through the lens of what the community requires to support growth. By partnering up with local energy provider Zonke Energy, UMBANE they were able to gain a better understanding of how communities and households engage with energy infrastructure.

Many informal settlements are below the grid so don’t have access, yet are affected by it. Close proximity to the grid, therefore, doesn’t equate to access and can create, or exacerbate, exclusion and inequity. The UMBANE project aims to tackle this issue bilaterally: from both the perspectives of improving access and social equality, arguing that these cannot be resolved effectively without acknowledging their interconnectedness.

The project also ran workshops, supporting 21 women in setting up businesses centred around refrigeration services as a way of prolonging the project’s lifetime (and its benefits for the wider community) while securing a positive legacy for the project. This business coaching was used as an opportunity to create employment opportunities and set up income streams centred around these more reliable sources of energy.

Refrigeration services are one of the biggest uses of energy in the settlement:

  • Prolong the shelf-life of food and drink products, subsequently reducing food waste and impacts on health

  • Enabling the storing of medicine

  • Offering these services to generate an income, consolidating the project’s success

Here, UMBANE becomes multi-dimensional. Beginning with a focus on environmental sustainability and energy access by introducing solar, the project is also concerned with the empowerment of women by training and upskilling them through business models, enabling them to enter the labour force and reduce gender inequality. This is a synergistic approach in the sense that it is supporting sustainable development by combatting social issues simultaneously.

Article by Heidi Surfleet

References list: 

UMBANE: Powering innovative sustainable businesses with productive use appliances in South African informal settlements at the margins of the grid (no date) Innovative Off-grid Energy Services. Available at: (Accessed: February 13, 2023). 

A presentation entitled “Creating viable off-grid business models for urban futures in low-income housing settlements” was given by Whitney Pailman on 14/03/2022 to the University of Exeter students enrolled on GEO2132.



‘Umbane’ means electricity in isiXhosa (one of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa).

SDGs 7 and 11: affordable and clean energy + sustainable cities and communities.

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