For those without electricity solar is shining brighter

Some 1.3 billion people worldwide live without electricity, affecting health, lowering incomes, and making education difficult. Low-cost solar energy programs are beginning to meet the need.

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters/File
A vendor measures the length of a solar panel while a buyer looks on at a stall in Manila. 'Energy poverty,' the lack of access to electricity, is a serious problem in much of the developing world. A growing number of projects are helping even the poorest families to afford solar-powered electricity.

In rural Uganda, light streams from the Ssenyonjo family’s windows through the night. The children inside sleep soundly, free from worry of snakes and thieves. They are prepared for the morning’s classes after an evening of study. What’s more, their lungs are healthy – no one wakes with coughing fits or fevers.

But for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population that does not yet have solar power like the Ssenyonjo family, this vision of clean energy is still a dream. Some 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity.

Energy poverty not only affects basic comfort – it limits the possibility for economic development. Children are unable to study when the sun goes down, rendering education ineffective. Health facilities are inadequate, job opportunities are minimal, and time is wasted in walking hours to the market for kerosene, which damages both health and the environment.

“Widespread energy poverty still condemns billions to darkness, ill health, and miss opportunities for education and prosperity.” says UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

This is why an increasing number of advocates, in both the public and private sectors, are promoting the use of solar power to improve the lives of billions. Many companies are now taking on the achievable goal of increasing access to clean energy across the globe.

For their solar programs to be successful, these companies focus on tailored marketing strategies to make sure the products are affordable, accepted, and culturally appropriate for the people who could most benefit from them.

Creative financing. Solar is a low-cost energy source in the long run, but it has high initial costs. Yet the people who could benefit most live on less than $1 per day. They often have such unpredictable sources of income that even making a regular monthly payment on a loan can be difficult.

Some solar manufacturers and energy distributors are helping people skirt these up-front costs through creative financing models.

Simpa Networks wants to make “sustainable energy choices ‘radically affordable’” to all. The India-based technological company does this through its "progressive purchasing" model, which is essentially a pay-as-you-go plan such as those used for mobile phones. The customer uses only what they can afford. Each payment contributes to the overall cost of the product, so that eventually they get to own it for the rest of its lifespan – usually around 10 years.

• The Government of India initiated a subsidy scheme to facilitate solar-based loans from banks like the Aryavart Bank of Gramin. After experiencing its own inconvenient power losses, Aryavart Gramin became a supporter of solar power by providing a widely accessible loan program that bears 30 percent of the benchmark cost of solar installations.

Most notably, in programs such as these, customers can finance their own solar systems for less than what they would otherwise be spending on kerosene ($40-$80 per year on average). M-KOPA reports a savings of $750 per household over the course of four years and 125 hours of fume-free lighting each month.

Other companies such as Azuri (sub-Saharan Africa), Kingo (Guatemala) and SELCO (India) are following similarly effective models.

Keeping it local. One of the fundamental benefits of solar technology in developing nations is that its success relies on local industry. To ensure this success, several companies establish self-sustaining systems that the customers themselves build and maintain. Such projects funnel revenue from the industry back into their villages by localizing the knowledge and resources used to build, install, and maintain the solar systems.  

• Often, rural youth who become educated and trained in such an industry end up leaving their homes for opportunities in the city. So Barefoot College developed a training program for grandmothers, who are more likely to stay put and use their knowledge for the good of their communities. Two are elected by their village’s solar committee to go to the college. There, they learn how to install, maintain, and repair the solar systems and, upon graduation, receive a monthly salary for their work.

Solar Sister trains rural African women in sales and entrepreneurship, empowering them to become active participants in the economy while acknowledging that “women invest 90 percent of their income into their family’s well being.”

Lighting a Billion Lives trains local entrepreneurs to manage their own solar charging station, from which they rent out solar lamps for a modest price to the local population. The organization also offers microloans and subsidies to facilitate such entrepreneurship.

Grameen Shakti (Bangladesh), SolarAid (Africa), and Kamworks (Cambodia) operate with similar values.

Culturally Relevant Marketing. In the past, many companies and governments would dump inferior systems into desperate but hopeful areas. Despite many improvements in the efficiency and reliability of solar technology, the poor-quality products have created a long-standing mistrust and skepticism of solar.

Now, distributors face an “uphill battle of small firms making good products against massive ‘bottom-feeding’ manufacturers dumping shoddy products into the market by the container-load,” explains Evan Mills, an energy expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to Ensia magazine.

To combat this misconception, companies have realized that the key to great marketing is advocacy through education. They focus on teaching local community members about the improved technology so that once they are aware of its value, they are more likely than an outsider to convince their neighbors.

• Often, the elderly of a community are revered in rural communities. Conscious of this, Barefoot College’s aforementioned program for grandmothers is also beneficial because its trainees can advocate for more quality products. Those developed by Kingo, which boasts a “perpetual service warranty and free system upgrades,” and D.Light, with its water-resistant, weatherproof, and warrantied lighting products, are helping to change the conversation about solar.

• Likewise, SolarAid’s SunnyMoney program uses a "community distribution model" to build trust and help citizens to educate each other on the huge impact that solar power can have on their lives.

In this way, solar companies are illuminating the conversation about energy poverty by empowering families like the Ssenyonjos to become agents of change in their own communities and across the globe.

• Azuri’s CEO, Simon Bransfield-Garth, gives an enlightening summary of the issue in his TEDx talk.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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