When Information Is Power: Behind The Load Shedding App In South Africa

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As co-founders of South Africa’s favorite load shedding app, Dan Southwood-Wells and Herman Maritz alert people about rampant power cuts so they can better plan their lives.

THE PHONE GOES PING! AND THEN THE customary alert, that the country is going in to Stage 3 or Stage 4 or even Stage 6 ‘load shedding’ – the infamous word to describe rotating power cuts in South Africa.

Every South African, every single South African, can relate to the train of thoughts and tidal wave of emotions – anger, frustration, helplessness, even depression – that succeed the moment they know they will be hit by load shedding.

The subscribers of load shedding app, EskomSePush, are perhaps better informed, and prepared, for the scheduled power cuts – or the hours that they will be plunged in darkness – thanks to the notifications on the app.

It was “just another day in the office” when Dan Southwood-Wells and Herman Maritz, the founders of EskomSePush, called “the best load shedding app”, had their epiphany for it.

“Dan and I were working together at a banking company building apps for banks,” Maritz opens. “We were building push notifications (automated messages sent by an application to a user when the application is not open) and this was in 2014.

“Then the power just went off! We were unsure if we should just stay or go home because we did not know if this was load shedding, and what stage it was,” Maritz laughs.

Adds Southwood-Wells: “In 2014, or the beginning of 2015, there was that saying going around that was like ‘is there an app for [load shedding]?’ And we thought, ‘hey, there isn’t an app for it’, and we know a little bit about app development.”

This soon became a “side hustle” for the two gentlemen who officially launched it in 2015, and garnered about 250,000 users.

“I think it was also the time,” Southwood-Wells says. “Everyone was getting over the hangover of Blackberry, and

slowly getting into iPhones and Android was like a thing. So back then, we were like, ‘oh, this is so cool’. And [the app] did really well in 2015.”

However, soon after that, the duo had to put it to bed for a while.

“All the users went away,” says Southwood-Wells. “There was no load shedding,” Maritz completes.

But the duo returned with the app in 2018 as load shedding once again began to rear its ugly head in South Africa.

The power crisis in South Africa dates back to 2007, when load shedding was introduced.

The current period of widespread national staged rolling blackouts – as electricity supply falls behind demand – that threatens to destabilize the national power grid, has been attributed by the South African government and Eskom, the government-owned entity and primary power generator, to insufficient power generation capacity.

So far, according to business news website BusinessTech, 2022 has been South Africa’s most intensive year of power cuts to date, as Eskom’s coal fleet continues to deteriorate.

FORBES AFRICA reported in July that South African businesses were struggling to cope with the numerous power cuts, the worst since 2007. With some areas sustaining six-hour long outages for several days, the currency has also been negatively impacted, with local businesses sounding the alarm.

“[This] is a serious blow to an economy that is already struggling with low growth and a lack of decisive action,” said small business advocacy group Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) in a statement.

President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly newsletter in September that the country’s “widespread public anger is wholly justified”.

“With Eskom forced to once more implement load shedding to protect the national grid, individuals, households and businesses have had to contend with power interruptions for up to four hours at a time,” Ramaphosa added.

According to the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, the outlook for next year shows that Eskom will face a shortage of 2,001MW or higher for 49 out of the 52 weeks.

Despite this bleak sequence of events and the downfall of many businesses, for EskomSePush, the outcome has been the opposite.

“We are now at 6.7 million users,” Maritz testifies about the company’s growth. “It has gone up quite a lot in the last month or two.”

The duo say it has never been about how many users they gain, but about solving a problem for themselves and wanting to help others.

The “side hustle” became a full-time job for both this year as load shedding became incessantly worse.

“It was kind of good timing in a way, because we didn’t know that this year would be specifically bad for load shedding. But yeah, it’s quite fun to see your side project becoming your main project.” Maritz admits.

“And we have a lot of fun with this,” adds Southwood-Wells, adopting an upbeat tone to address what is a serious issue. Their whole brand identity is built and centered around keeping the conversation of scheduled load shedding light. For instance, when load shedding is suspended, the user is either greeted with emojis on the notification bar of their phone or opening the app,they find a fun ‘gif’ of Will Smith.

Says Southwood-Wells: “We don’t like load shedding as much as any other South African. But if we can make it just a little bit light-hearted whilst people are finding the information they need to go about their day, then that’s a win; if we can make them smile or sing when the power is going to be turned off, that’s a win.”

“One of the biggest issues at least for me, that I would really like to solve is a lot of what is on South African minds as soon as the power goes off; [they say] ‘it’s load shedding, right?’ But that’s not always the case. It could be maintenance [issues], it could be a planned or unplanned outage where something like cable theft has happened or something has blown up,” says Maritz.

For now, the two are happy to continue building the app, especially since a permanent solution for South Africa’s uphill battle with electricity seems far-fetched.

“We’ve learned with EskomSePush that information is power. We all want to know what’s going on around us. Accurate and timely information gives us peace of mind, providing a sense of assurance in an increasingly chaotic world,” Maritz concludes grandly, even as the power goes off, signaling the end of our conversation on Zoom, and the irony of the times we are in.

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