When Tshepo Kau established his solar power solutions company in 2018 in Etwatwa; a township in Johannesburg’s East Rand, he didn’t even own a screwdriver. But today his business T Kau Trading, not only counts major commercial entities among its clientele; it’s also engaging with the government to find ways of harnessing the power of solar to benefit more South Africans.
South Africa’s energy crisis has turned solar power into a growing industry – but Tshepo’s entry into the industry was sparked by the desire to give people a healthier life, rather than to help them keep the lights on.
He explains that he noticed that the asthma and allergies he had always suffered from worsened when he visited his mother. “Anyone who has spent time in South Africa’s townships during winter will know that people burn a lot of coal for fuel, and it greatly affects the air quality,” he notes. “I wanted to find a cleaner alternative.”
A determined Tshepo started researching solar power and was impressed by its potential. “I fell in love with the idea of using natural resources that we have in abundance because even rural areas and villages, where resources are usually scarce can also benefit”.
Although he had no experience in the solar industry, he was so inspired by what he had learnt that he resigned from his job as a sales rep and registered his company, T Kau Trading.
He admits it was a leap of faith – “I actually didn’t even have any tools at the time” – but he had a strong belief that solar power could improve the quality of life for people in townships and rural villages.
Booming industry with challenges
Tshepo’s first client was his grandfather, for whom he designed a simple system with a small car battery, a small inverter, and one solar panel. Seeing its success made him realise he was ready to work on larger, more complicated systems – and, with loadshedding starting to impact on daily life, he had many opportunities to do so.
“The problem is that those opportunities brought many challenges, too,” Tshepo admits. “Apart from the usual obstacles any small business will encounter, we had to deal with supply issues: most solar equipment is made in China, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, when factories frequently closed in line with the country’s regulations, supply was affected. At the same time, the growth in demand means that there is a lot of pressure on suppliers.”
The industry’s boom also meant that Tshepo had to find a way to differentiate T Kau Trading. He decided to focus on providing after-sales service: In contrast to many providers who exit once they have completed an installation, he makes a point of remaining in touch with clients to guide them through any problems they experience. This approach has seen the company grow from a one-man operation into a thriving business with five employees and a R2 million turnover.
Despite the cost of solar still being a little too high for the township and rural consumers, he is proud that his company is still making a difference. One of the business’ accolades was an installation at a university residence in Port Elizabeth. “Those students can now complete their studies and assignments without worrying about when the lights will go off,” he says.
Using solar energy to help students keep the lights on is a dream come true for Tshepo and he hopes that he will continue to use solar on a broader scale to help more people. T Kau Trading is currently engaging with the government to make small systems more affordable for township users while also working to equip school classrooms with solar power.
“My goal now is to see T Kau Trading become recognised as a leading solar solutions company, with an emphasis on holistic solutions: we’re not just here to serve the people who need an installation, but also for those who want advice, too – hospitals, police, municipalities and other essential service providers included,” he concludes.