Pofadder’s star shines brightly

2015-03-22 15:00

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Early Monday morning in Pofadder, Northern Cape, used to be a sleepy affair – but not any more.

Ever since the town’s most abundant resource – sunshine – became an economic commodity, Pofadder has developed into quite the booming hub of activity.

For years, Pofadder was at the butt end of jokes – a one-horse town with a small hotel and liquor store.

But when multinational Spanish company Abengoa announced it was developing the biggest solar thermal electric plant in the southern hemisphere in the little town, Pofadder’s tale became one of streets paved with golden sunlight.

KaXu Solar One, located about 50km outside of the town, has changed the face of Pofadder in just two years. The R7.9?billion plant – whose name means open skies in Nama – is the first of its kind in the country and will add 100?megawatts to the national grid.

With its parabolic design, the plant uses 360?000 mirrors to collect, store and convert sunrays into power, for at least the next 20 years, which Eskom will buy. It is fully operational, having been commissioned into the national grid a month ago.

KaXu will provide electricity for more than 400?000 South Africans – equal to the consumption of 80?000 houses. The technology allows electricity to be stored for two and a half hours, which means power will be supplied to the national grid when it is needed at peak time.

But KaXu has brought more than just electricity to Pofadder, which at one time had a 70% unemployment rate.

“Our people did not get up in the morning. What did they have to get up for? There were no jobs,” says Fadiel Farao, school principal and chairperson of the KaXu Community Trust. “But when the solar plant came, people started getting up at the crack of dawn, walking with their kosblikke[lunch boxes] every morning.”

His primary school, Laerskool Pofadder, also benefited. Suddenly the kids’ school clothes did not look quite as tatty.

“And the snoepie [tuck shop] does a roaring trade,” adds Farao.

The benefits go beyond the tangible.

“Kids seeing their parents go to work has been a huge motivator. They now have stars in their eyes. There is hope that there is more than just the streets of Pofadder,” he says.

Spanish contract workers have left their mark on the town. The local supermarket now stocks olive oil and saffron and the Pofadder hotel menu now includes pizza, a favourite of the Spaniards.

On a Sunday evening, the lobby of the hotel is filled with Spaniards taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi to Skype loved ones back home. The hotel has had seven rooms added, chalets built and has hired more staff.

In Pofadder’s kuierplekke (pubs), Spanish pop can be heard. And in Spain, two local Pofadder girls are waiting to give birth.

But along with the benefits have come drawbacks. The higher cash flow has worsened some of Pofadder’s social ills, most notably alcohol abuse.

“People have money to spend, and a lot of that unfortunately goes to the local liquor store,” says Farao. “And often, workers don’t return to work on Monday, only finding their way back by Wednesday.”

Thorsten Rauch, senior manager at Abengoa, downplays the problem, indicating it has not been that much of a hurdle. He prefers to highlight the benefits.

“We tried to employ local suppliers as much as possible. That was our obligation when we came to South Africa. We looked at local capabilities and appointed as much as we could. And most of those subcontractors hired the locals in Pofadder to do certain jobs.”

Once the plant starts turning a profit, the local community will share in the spoils. The KaXu community trust owns 20% of the solar plant, Abengoa 51% and the Industrial Development Corporation 29%.

Farao said the dividends would be invested in long-term projects to benefit the community.

Abengoa has founded a community organisation, is running corporate social investment programmes and has contracted a consultant to identify sustainable business proposals from the community.

Rauch said it was important to leave a sustainable legacy.

“Yes, the local supermarket has had an uptake in business. The local hotel has expanded,” he says. “But what happens after the Spanish contract workers leave? Pofadder has to go on with this boost it received.”

He said simply forking out money did not solve problems. “You have to create opportunities.”

As a result, Abengoa has identified about 15 viable business proposals that it will scrutinise for sustainability.

More than 1?000 jobs were generated during the construction of the plant, but only 89 permanent jobs were created. However, South Africans are being trained to run the plant.

KaXu also has a sibling on its way. Abengoa owns 40% of a group that was last year awarded the 100MW Xina Solar One project, which will be built next to KaXu to form Africa’s biggest solar complex.

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