Developing Community Centric Sustainable Solutions for Rural Communities in Western Cape, South Africa

Researchers from the Bioresource and Bioeconomy research group have been working with the community of Wupperthal in South Africa to address their energy needs and solutions in the aftermath of a wildfire that destroyed many of their homes.

Professor Lynsey Melville in Wupperthal


Research background

South Africa, like many countries is experiencing the impacts of climate change. Poor governance and lack of investment over the past decades means that Eskom (the only national energy provider in South Africa) is on the brink of collapse. Rising fuel costs and intermittent energy supply (leading to rolling blackouts) is a national challenge.

Many rural communities are the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change and often do not have the infrastructure and resources to build resilience.

In January 2019 academics from BBRG visited Wupperthal, a small rural community in the Cederberg Municipality in the Western Coast District of Western Cape. A Moravian mission station since the 1830’s It lies 67km from the nearest town Clan William and has a population of approximately 600. In December 2018 the community was devastated by a wildfire which destroyed many historic and civic buildings as well as 53 residential properties.

This project involved a multi-disciplinary team of academics with expertise in energy, water, built environments, materials and socio-technical systems. 

Research aims

This project aimed to provide a comprehensive review of the opportunities and challenges surrounding the re-building of the community with a focus on climate resilience, energy independence and economic growth. 

Research methods

The project involved several fieldtrips to Wupperthal to collect data, evaluate existing infrastructure and condition of buildings and work with the community and stakeholders to understand the perceptions, behaviours and aspirations with regards to e.g. renewable energy, water, waste etc.

Stakeholder engagement

Meetings with regional or national stakeholders (academic, industrial, government and NGO) to explore collaboration and funding opportunities.

Socio-Technical Assessment

Informal structured and semi structured interviews with community stakeholders to determine current practices, behaviours, perceptions and expectations surrounding energy consumption and waste management. This included:

  • Current energy vectors– pricing and supply (issues/challenges with existing supply)
  • Current energy practices and energy demand assessments which measured KWh usage per household, business or community building.
  • Current waste management practices – community led or by household for MSW, Agri wastes, human wastes, animal waste.
  • Current water practices including drinking, irrigation, commercial use, sustainable use (harvesting) storage etc.
Resource assessment

To better understand potential of various renewable energy options, including:

  • Bioresource availability – quantitative and qualitative assessment of potential organic materials for energy production, volume and availability and current applications/ management practices and characteristics
  • Geo-spatial assessment for wind, solar and hydro power options
Installation of equipment

Installation of field-based data monitoring equipment/ analysis and testing protocols and training of local community/ support organisation/s on collection and reporting of data. 

Research outcomes

During the project, the team were able to undertake a comprehensive technical assessment of current resources and infrastructure as well as conduct structured and semi-structured interviews with the community to better understand the challenges, perceptions, behaviours and future aspirations surrounding resilience and sustainability.

The research identified and prioritised several critical issues within the community (specifically relating to water storage and transport, energy prices/ reliability and waste management). These issues were highlighted by residents and businesses within the community. Energy reliability was one of the greatest concerns leading to loss of food and vital medications (from inadequate refrigeration). Renewable energy, particularly solar PV was recommended as a priority with supplementation of existing fuels with biogas produced from anaerobic digestion of locally available wastes.

The findings of the research were presented to the community, church and regional stakeholders. This has helped to inform the planning for re-development in the community. The University continues to work with stakeholders including local government and charitable organisations to support ongoing re-development.