The Log Lab in Mondisa, KwaZulu-Natal, is a classroom by day and a business that screens films and documentaries by night. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Log Lab in Mondisa, KwaZulu-Natal, is a classroom by day and a business that screens films and documentaries by night. Picture: SUPPLIED

IN July the Siemens Log Lab in Mondisa, KwaZulu-Natal, celebrated its first birthday, proving that a container can be a tool for social transformation.

The Log Lab was pioneered by Hasan Darwish of the engineering faculty of North West University, Potchefstroom, with Siemens Transformers.

It is a hi-tech, multipurpose venue fitted inside a container, and is used as a self-sustaining classroom by day and a business by night.

The intention was to provide revenue generation and job creation in the community, while focusing on education and entertainment.

Darwish believes this is a brilliant example of great design and engineering coming together to empower an entire community. "The innovation in the Log Lab is not the fact that it uses a container, projector, or several other technologies ... those have been done before.... what the Log Lab did differently is it changed items which were liabilities into assets by incentivising the community to use, maintain, and pay for them indirectly," he says.

The unit is housed in a 12m shipping container with 15 comfortable seats, 12 computer desk installations and a management office. It is fully solar powered, internet enabled, interactive, and insulated. It is secured by CCTV sensors and uses fingerprint entry and exit.

The solar power panels produce and store enough energy each day to run the unit for three days, safeguarding it against disruptions caused by bad weather, without relying on the national energy grid.

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THE Log Lab is used mainly for educational purposes during the day. Primary school children attend mandatory computer skills classes. At night films and documentaries are screened, transforming the unit into a community hub where adults and children can enjoy entertainment and education.

There are incentives for the community to use the lab: the best student performer during the day receives free movie tickets; the most active movie goer receives a free CV training course.

"If you distil the true need of the community and listen to them, there is no reason a project of this sort would fail," Darwish says.

Part of what makes the Log Lab unique is that the project was aimed at producing a level of quality that would be deemed acceptable in high-income communities. In developing the solar, operating, and other systems, only the best technologies were selected.

The solar system, for example, was overdesigned from a required 10kW storage capacity to 22kW storage to cater for all possible risks. On paper this might seem like an unnecessary cost, but when the cost of driving to the site and repairing a component, and the fact that such systems often stop completely if redundancy isn’t built in, the engineering design makes sense.

The cost of the additional solar capacity amounted to R12,000, while a single trip to repair the unit is estimated at R5,000.

The extra capacity allows for less battery use (prolonging their life), contingency and backup capacity (allowing for operation in bad weather), a redundant system (while the main system is out of service), and less maintenance.

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Both a simulation and a live test showed that the system required virtually no maintenance. By applying engineering design in this way, the project purchased ease of mind for R2,000 — far less than the tens of thousands of rand projects such as this one absorb.

During the entire year of operation there has only been one day of internet downtime, due to extremely bad weather. There has also been only a single solar issue, when a fuse needed replacement. During the year 1.5MW of power was generated by the lab, and more than 3,000 unique visitors benefited from it in some way.

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MOST importantly, there have been no security breaches, theft, or damage to the lab.

The combination of community ownership, smart design, solar power, access to the internet, and customisability play the biggest role in the Log Lab’s success. Although it aims to be both a social and business venture, it has to be financially sustainable. The unit must pay its fixed and running costs with the revenue earned by the initiative. Currently, the Log Lab provides a stable income of R3,000 a month. The community is working towards earning R7,000 a month, and is well on track.

"During this year the Log Lab turned into a symbol of hope and development in an underdeveloped and underserved community. We are proud to be part of this project," Darwish says.

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