Load-shedding or rolling blackouts are the deliberate shutdown of electric power in a part or parts of a power-distribution system, generally to prevent the failure of the entire system when the demand strains the capacity of the system. In South Africa this is a common occurrence. And solving this problem certainly meets the threshold of a problem that people are willing to pay money to resolve for the simple fact that Eskom is a monopoly and they cannot simply go to another electricity provider.

I have covered businesses that help solve or rather alleviate the problems caused by Eskom namely Renewable Energy, Solar Panel and Geyser Supply and Gas Appliances. Today I am going to look at a solution that provides power for the 2 to 2½ hours to certain types users when the power goes off: the power trolley.

The problem
Load-shedding in South Africa is like a woman’s menstrual cycle: it comes and goes but it will always be here. The menstrual cycle also explains why this problem won’t go away anytime soon: every year more people are born than die, in South Africa this number has been roughly double in the last few years: around 20 births per thousand vs. 10 deaths per 1000. Those children will grow up needing electricity; they will have children that will grow up that will need electricity. By the time it takes to build a new power station (or even fix existing ones) South Africa’s power requirements will exceed Eskom’s capacity again requiring load-shedding to prevent the grid from “collapsing”.

The solution
Eskom goes off for around 2 to 2½ hours at a time, once, twice or thrice per day (depending on what “stage” it is). If its thrice a day , it will usually go off in the morning, afternoon and evening. Going off in the morning and afternoon is very problematic for businesses and for self-employed or work-from-home people. This means they can lose up to five hours of work a day, and even lose their job or business. If you take into consideration that an average work day is 8 hours, some only work 7 hours (with an hour of lunch) Eskom can be off for a significant amount of time (during peak hours) and can and has caused irreparable damage to the economy, people’s livelihoods and families as your livelihood affects your family.

“Power Trolley”
 A power trolley a plug-and-play device that provides power for a certain amount of time, it is better suited to an office where there are not power intensive demands. When I say a certain amount of time, I mean you can use it for the 2 to 2½ hours while Eskom is offline. This is compared to the consumer UPS which only provides enough time for you to save your work and safely switch off your computer (all the while annoyingly beeping). The power trolley is an inverter and UPS when the power goes off it automatically kicks in and your electronics starts running on (and drains the) battery, when it goes back on the battery starts to recharge, hopefully enough time until Eskom goes off again.

Anatomy of a power trolley
A power trolley is made up of the following components:
Inverter & UPS/Battery charger
Casing / Cabinet, often on wheels for easy transportation
Battery or batteries (bigger than what is found in a consumer-level UPS).

The opportunity
All those things can be bought separate and assembled. Even if you take an existing branded power trolley apart, all components may come from a different provider: the inverter manufacturer, the casing can be made by a welding or engineering company and the batteries by a different company that specialise in making batteries. And even the power trolley itself will be a different brand. So you can see the opportunity in this value chain.

There are a few opportunities:

  • Importing and distribution
    We don’t have much manufacturing capacity left in SA, even the wind-turbine maker went out of business. So there is opportunity in importing and even assembly.
  • Buy wholesale and retail
  • Service, refurbishing and repair
    You can do the supply and installation of batteries, you may even be able to increase capacity depending on existing hardware.
  • Making of the casing or cabinet is probably the only component that can be made in SA by a small business.

To me the biggest opportunity is to bring the cost down and create a trolley that can do just 2½ hours, even 2 hours for a single user aimed at the small office. To power a computer, monitor, router/modem, VoIP phone, and desk lamp. Most of the existing ones are a bit expensive and have sufficient capacity to run those items for longer periods, (while the cheaper smaller ones are not powerful enough or have enough capacity). If you a big office, even just to keep a critical PC and phone on where orders comes in or stuff has to be monitored.

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