A recent study by the Department of Energy found that more than 35% of South African households use nothing but blankets and extra clothing to stay warm during winter months; in the Western Cape, this figure is as high as 51%.

This is hardly surprising given the fact that electricity tariffs are set to continue increasing at levels above inflation, and that the cost of alternative energy sources, such as paraffin and LPG, is being pushed up by crude oil prices exceeding $100 per barrel.

Many poor households face the additional winter threat of devastating and potentially life-threatening shack fires – adding to an already unbearable energy burden.

Affordable and safe alternative technologies are however available – but access is limited.

“We know that renewable energy and energy efficient technologies work; the challenge is to get these products to the people that need them the most” says Robert Aitken, managing director of Restio Energy. The company finds and distributes household energy products designed specifically for low-income users.

In the past 12 months, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform distributed more than 1700 Household Energy Kits to rural households throughout the country. Each kit consists of an efficient wood- and charcoal rocket stove, a solar-powered LED lamp and cellphone charger, as well as a heat-retention cooker bag.

Restio Energy also partnered with PlaNet Finance, a micro-finance organisation, and The Business Place, a business training academy, to establish a township-based energy business called EnerGcare. Working through a network of independent sales agents, EnerGcare distributes renewable and efficient energy products to township residents in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Thabo Tsobane, EnerGcare manager, explains the initiative’s approach: “Townships lack the appropriate retail infrastructure and have limited awareness of these products. That is why we are using a direct sales approach where people can actually touch the products and see how they work.”

EnerGcare agents are currently operating in Khayelitsha, Alexandra and Soweto; and the initiative is set to expand to additional areas in the next few months.