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Lighting the way into the future

There’s no doubt that a lack of affordable infrastructure and services is holding back the development of many communities in South Africa and in other developing countries around the world. Before these communities can flourish and become competitive, basics such as water, electricity and a regular revenue income for local authorities must be a given.

In South Africa, both local authorities and national electricity utility Eskom have done a good job in electrifying the country over the past few years – electrified households grew from 50% in 1995 to 66% in 2001. This has mainly been due to the increase in the number of households in the rural areas with access to electricity – from 21% in 1995 to 49% in 2001.

Many of the newly electrified households are making use of prepayment meters. Local authorities like the system, because it improves cash flow, avoids the need to prepare and send out monthly bills and reduces the problems of debt collection. Residents enjoy being able to manage their budgets by monitoring their consumption of both power and water – particularly important in areas where job opportunities are few and many people do not earn a regular income. Prepayment allows them to pay for water and power when they have the money, without the fear of running up large debts with local municipalities. And because the customer interface unit (CIU) shows them exactly how much power is used by each appliance in the home, they are also able to change their usage patterns, which allows them to save both power and money.

Synpase Vending System


However, one of the challenges posed by the widespread rollout of prepayment meters, particularly in less developed areas, is making it easy for users to purchase power or water. Syntell Networks has developed an online vending system known as Synapse, which is bringing convenient and improved services to the utility-paying public within the greater Cape Town area. A number of prepaid vending systems have been established in poorer communities in the Unicity within the last two years.

Synapse is an open system that is able to implement interfaces easily and be fully integrated into municipal billing systems. In addition, it can administer the dispensing of free electricity and complex tariffs. Government regulations in South Africa stipulate that 20 kWh of electricity, and 6,000l of water, should be supplied free of charge to every household in the country.

Designed to function as a multi-utility system, Synapse can incorporate the purchase of water, electricity and gas tokens. Supported by GPRS, it can connect credit-dispensing units (CDUs) much more effectively to the main server within each local authority. And crucially, it can work perfectly within low bandwidth insecure networks, dramatically extending its applicability.

Because Synapse offers full server redundancy and full network redundancy, it can continue to vend efficiently offline even if the link goes down. The system is scaleable and dual redundant, and can offer real-time data replication.

Syntell Networks is also in negotiations with a well-known chain store, Shoprite, to further expand into less wealthy areas of the country. In the last year this company has opened a new chain of stores called U Save, which offer a range of low-cost food and non-food items. Syntell Networks hopes to use these stores as points for its prepaid vending systems – an exciting prospect, especially since Shoprite will continue to expand its range of U Save stores and thus potentially offer prepaid vending services to an ever-growing community.

Such a relationship will be welcome to both Syntell Networks and vending operators. Vendors are easy targets for attacks and robberies, as they deal with significant quantities of cash. While creating a secure environment for vendors and clients is an important consideration for Syntell Networks, such concerns slow the process of establishing new vending operators. Being able to use the U Save stores as vending points will go a long way towards solving the issues of safety for the vendors and convenience for the purchaser of power or water.

Mark Chewins, director of Syntell, agrees that it is easier to establish prepaid vending system points in wealthier areas, where there is an established infrastructure. However, he notes that Syntell Networks is determined to assist the more informal communities, where the number of transactions is usually higher but the revenue is lower, due to the lower usage of electricity.

“I think we have had success in the poorer areas,” says Chewins. “One of the key issues is better payment points and vending infrastructure in areas where people live. This means that people don’t find themselves running out of electricity when they really need it. Where vending systems are located close by, people can get to their prepayment points easily without having to walk long distances.”

Today Syntell handles 20% of the prepaid electricity sales in Cape Town, and their web site has over 4,000 regular users.


Energy.co.za also allows registered customers to purchase prepaid electricity via SMS (the short messaging service offered by the cellular phone networks). This service can bring the customer from power-out to lights-on in under one minute. During this time, the purchaser will have his or her cell phone and meter number verified. The system checks that the meter is registered and bona fide, and it then connects to the bank to verify credit card details. Finally, it makes contact with the relevant municipal server to instruct it to generate an electricity ticket and a purchase code, which is sent via both email and SMS to the purchaser’s cellular phone. Once in possession of this code, the consumer simply enters the code on his dispenser, and the lights go on again.


Syntell has recently partnered with water-flow specialist Rhomberg to develop a dispensing system that handles prepayment for both electricity and water. The system consists of two elements – Syntell’s Customer Interface Unit (CIU) and a Rhomberg water dispenser unit. The two elements of the system are installed separately and connected by a link-cable that provides a high level of security, to ensure stable operation and reliable data transfer. Any attempt to bypass this connection results in the water supply being cut off. The Rhomberg water dispenser unit is a fully enclosed entity containing an SA Bureau of Standards-approved water measurement unit with a flow sensor control valve and an electronic interface.

The consumer receives a token with a 20-digit number, generated by a vending station, to transfer credit details to the meter in a secure standard transfer specification (STS) format. Separate tokens are used for electricity and water – but one CIU accepts tokens for both services, while each service can be monitored separately within the CIU. When the credit of either falls below a certain level, a warning is given. In addition, the overload mode interrupts the supply to warn the user that excessive electricity or water is being drawn. The meter has a built-in tamper mode which detects attempts to open the case.

Electricity is needed to power the CIU to measure water consumption. If the power fails, the water valve will default to the open position, ensuring continuous water supply to the household. However, this function is configurable by the utility, and can be set to switch off if required. When either the water or electricity credit reaches zero, that service will be disconnected. Additional charges can be structured for each individual user – for example, to take account of service connection fees, variable tariff structures and recovery of previous debts.

The system will maintain separate water and electricity records, and revenues can be streamed to the appropriate operational accounts without losing flexibility or data transparency. It offers the following benefits:

  • No batteries or limited- life components are used, eliminating costly routine maintenance and upgrade imperatives.
  • The materials used are mostly plastic, limiting theft for scrap value.
  • Construction is rugged and environmentally friendly.
  • Credit can be entered easily and conveniently at the CIU in a user’s home.
  • Installation and operation are quick and easy.