• 01.24.13

A High-Tech Shack For Slum-Dwellers, Funded By The Gates Foundation

The iShack attempts to increase the living conditions in the world’s slums by incorporating solar panels, lights, a cell phone charger and–on the more deluxe models–a DVD player and fridge.

Slum living is a common outgrowth of urban development, especially in developing parts of the world. A staggering 62% of the urban population of Sub-Saharan Africa resides in slums. In Enkanini, a slum near Stellenbosch, South Africa, a higher-tech shack is being tested out by local residents, courtesy of researchers at the University of Stellenbosch.


Dubbed the iShack (for “improved shack”), the base model comes with a solar photovoltaic panel that can power three lights, an outdoor motion detecting light, and a cell phone charger. The shack is temperature-regulated by an adobe wall made out of hay and clay in the back, while tetra-pack material and cardboard are used as an insulation layer between the interior and a zinc outer layer. A slanted roof shades the front of the shack and lets inhabitants collect rainwater, and flame retardant paint lowers the fire risk.

For residents with a bit more cash to spare, a second version of the iShack comes with a radio in addition to everything else, and an even nicer model is outfitted with a DVD player, fridge, and TV, according to AllAfrica. All of the versions are priced so that locals can afford them, with an average cost of $660. Typical shacks in the area cost less (up to $542), but lowered fuel bills from the solar panels should alleviate the price differences. All proceeds go to local entrepreneurs who deal with maintenance

Even with its upgraded amenities, the iShack still lacks water (the researchers are working on water and sanitation systems for slums as we speak) and power for cooking. But informal settlements in the developing world are an inescapable reality, especially as urban areas swell in the coming years. And they require a different kind of infrastructure. The iShack researchers explain on their site:

Conventional approaches are usually designed by engineers who make big assumptions about the operating environments without consulting the people who would be using the infrastructure. They are usually over-capitalised, convey resource flows unsustainably, require expert operation, maintenance, large scale investment, and capital finance backed by loans. The economic returns from the productive activities usually accrue to private sector contractors and engineers; little benefit, aside from sweat equity, is seen by residents.

We need new approaches to urban infrastructure. The new approaches require innovation, both technological and institutional, and they need to co-evolve gradually and iteratively, with experimentation happening in situ, in real time, in partnership.

Armed with a $250,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Stellenbosch University plan to build or retrofit up to 100 iShacks in the next year. If everything works out, they’ll apply the model on a larger scale.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.