This story previously appeared in the print edition of Drum Magazine.
Many hands make light work, the old saying goes – but this simple, innovative creation by a Cape Town inventor shows that sometimes all it takes is one pair of hands to make the light work.
Siphamandla Ntshewula (21) is on a mission to light up township homes with a smart lamp made from recycled two-litre soft drink bottles and fabric off-cuts. Growing up in a house in Khayelitsha without a ceiling meant when he studied late into the night the light flooded into every room, keeping his family awake when they needed to be up early the next day.
“As a young boy in the township we didn’t study during the day but would do so at night, which was a problem in households like mine,” he tells us.
Siphamandla, who matriculated from Sinako High School in 2017, didn’t have a place or a way to study that wouldn’t keep the household awake.
“The bright light disturbed them. I didn’t make the lamp for myself – I was wondering how difficult it is for people who live in one-room houses.”
Siphamandla’s family couldn’t afford to pay for him to study further after metric so he joined a community based youth programme called Activate! Change Drivers, which works to equip young community leaders with the tools to develop their neighbourhoods and network with one another. He attended a two-week course where he learnt leadership skills and ways to promote innovative thinking – which led to his study lamp idea.
“At the course I developed my power. At first I felt scared and thought I was too young to make a difference, but I learnt that I could do it and I went for it.”
Siphamandla Ntshewula who invented the affordable lamps to help learners study at night
He and a friend were brainstorming ideas when he came up with the lamp idea and began experimenting. First he used soft-drink cans but quickly realised they could be dangerous because the device uses electricity, and using metal as a material would cause problems. He then tried two-litre plastic bottles.
Once he was satisfied his idea would work, Siphamandla started gathering raw materials for the project, even digging through garbage for bottles to recycle for his lamps. He also recruited a friend’s younger brother to collect bottles while playing outside, he tells us.
“I have to buy the bulb, bulb holder, a switch, the plug and the wire, and glue to cover it with fabric,” he says. It costs him around R80 to produce each lamp, which he sells for R100. Each takes about an hour to make, he says. He works from home. His aunt Zikhona Ntshewula, who works at a textile factory, supplies him with fabric off-cuts for the lamps. Siphamandla is constantly working to improve his creation, he tells us. He’s experimented with various types of light bulbs to find ones that aren’t too bright or too hot. However, innovation doesn’t always get the support it deserves.
At the course I developed my power. At first I was too scared – I thought I was too young to make a difference, but I learnt that I could do it and I went for it. Siphamandla
“People always say to me I’m selling them Twizza for R100 when I try to sell them the lamps,” he told News24. But he refuses to be put down by negative remarks from community members and even friends. He was so confident about the lamp that he gave one to a pal to try out. “He showed the lamp to his father, and he really liked it. That’s what motivated me to make more.”
A few more were handed out as gifts to friends and were also met with rave reviews. Even his family, who at first weren’t too interested in his project, now ask him how his budding business is doing.
Four of the lamps which Siphamandla sells for R100
The process of making the lamps re-using 2L plastic bottles.
Siphamandla has his heart set on opening a shop where he can sell his lamps. In the meantime he’s showing his community spirit by giving away lamps to learners who can use them. He’s also doing it, he tells us, in the hope of inspiring other innovators to pursue their ideas. “I wanted to give lamps to my high school for Grade 12 learners who find it difficult to study for their exams. I delivered the lamps but the learners didn’t collect them as they’d already started writing exams. “I went back to collect them and donated them to Tembisa Ratanga (a Khayelitsha community centre) where there’s a library for children.”
His sister, Mila (12), will also get a lamp of her own soon – she’ll need it when she goes to high school, he says.
The budding entrepreneur is keen to pursue opportunities that can help develop his skills further. That’s why he’s joined a business learning programme where he’s studying things like how to start a business and register a company, the tax requirements for businesses and other information crucial to young entrepreneurs.
“I attend classes at Youth in Business in Khayelitsha once a week.” When he’s not at class or collecting bottles and other material for his lamps, he’s glued to his phone, researching ways to improve his invention and develop his business.
“I plan to look for funding. After I finish my course I want to open my own shop to sell the lamps.” With the high price of electricity and ongoing load shedding, Siphamandla is also experimenting with ways to power his lamps with batteries.
“I want to change my products so they can use batteries, for those who don’t have electricity in their homes or for when there’s a blackout.” It looks as if Siphamandla’s bright idea will be lighting up a lot of homes while helping to create brighter futures for learners.