Small is beautiful when it comes to reaching the millions
Jun 15, 2017
Anna Wells, GOGLA Senior Communications Adviser
When talking to people unfamiliar with our sector and its context, I sometimes get asked ‘how much difference do these small products really make?’. It’s a question that has had some attention recently, following a recent study conducted in India to assess the socioeconomic effects of solar. Do off-grid solar products actually save the customer money? Are people able to extend their working day? Can children study for longer? Do businesses get created and grow as a result of people using these products? These are all valid questions. But perhaps a key question here is: can we ever really measure these social impacts?
In 2013, GOGLA founded an Impact Working Group with the focused purpose of examining the social impact of our sector, notably the products at the heart of it. Together with expert partners, this working group developed a set of six metrics to help the sector collectively report and measure its social impact coherently and consistently. The metrics have been reviewed by external experts and are aligned with the IRIS impact metrics. By standardizing a measurement framework, we can now aggregate credible results on the impacts of off-grid energy businesses across the industry.
Before assessing the positive impact small scale solar products can have on households, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that access to energy is, in itself, a social outcome. Light, too, should not be overlooked as a critical intervention in its own right. In particular, when a household is faced with the alternative of relying on polluting, ineffective, not to mention dangerous kerosene or candles. Quality of life, well-being, customer satisfaction and safety are all improved with the switch from traditional fossil fuel based lighting to off-grid solar products.
So, back to my earlier question: do these products really save the customer money? Last month, together with Lighting Global, we launched the latest edition in a series of semi-annual reports, The Global Off-Grid Solar Market Report. This report found a total saving, to date, of over US$ 4.9billion by users of off-grid solar products. This is on a global, aggregate level and translates to an average of US$200 per household. These are the kind of savings that can make a difference between a languishing business and a burgeoning one. Last year, a Kenyan lady from Kisumu, named Rollins Akello, told me how she used to buy kerosene at a cost of 20 shillings a day (around 19 dollar cents). After buying a d.light S1 light, Rollins was able to save the money previously spent on kerosene. In just three months, she was able to save enough money to grow her business of roasting groundnuts. Rollins increased the quantity of groundnuts that she bought and roasted, starting first with just a small tin every week to one kilogram, and eventually to two kilograms. Now Rollins is selling more roasted nuts and is making more money for her family.
The Global Off-Grid Solar Market Report also found that there was an increase of 164%, on average, in available hours of light per household, owing to solar products, when compared to previous lighting (such as candles or kerosene). A significant enough increase to seean impact in work and study time. Indeed, I visited an evening study group in an off-grid community in Kenya which offered children three hours of tuition daily between 6-9pm using only the light of two d.light S2s. ‘You can see the feedback is good because the number of children (attending) increases’,the tutor’s wife told me.
The report estimated that the livelihoods of 1.9 million people are currently supported by off-grid solar lighting and electrification technologies and are using these products for their business. This includes direct employees within the distribution chain of such products. I recently met stall holder, Susan Akinyi, who had bought a SunKing Pro two years ago to light her fruit and vegetable stall from 7pm until midnight every day. Before she bought the SunKing, Susan used a tin kerosene lamp. ‘This one illuminates my stall much better’, she told me, ‘and as a result I get more passing custom’. As a direct result of using the product, Susan’s business has grown.
Although the six social impact metrics are a vital tool for standardizing and accurately describing impacts in a comparable manner, our research does not stop at these metrics. Quality of life, well-being and consumer experience are other key elements in the equation, and together with our partners at Acumen, we have been looking more deeply into the sector’s positive impacts and how these impacts can be can be amplified further. As part of this, Acumen recently conducted a piece of consumer-facing research, gaining further insight into the perspective of the customer. Something we’ve learnt here is that pico-solar is adopted universally. Indeed, another piece of research conducted by the ESMAP division of the World Bank highlighted that solar devices fill the access gap for all types of households – whether they are connected to the grid or not, and whether they are urban or rural – and reported that 33% of all households in Kenya has at least one solar device.
Another outcome highlighted in Acumen’s consumer perspective research, backed up by Acumen’s recent study into indoor air pollution and health impacts, was that solar devices lead to a significant reduction in household air pollution. However small the lighting unit, if it replaces a kerosene lamp or similar, the customer benefits from breathing far cleaner air. The research paper, focused on a study in Busia County in Kenya, found that more than nine out of ten household members said that kerosene lamps affected their breathing, while a quarter of adults reported wheezing. Beyond Acumen’s study, and about 100 km east of Busia County, I met an elderly lady recently who was suffering from severe health problems as a result of kerosene fumes in her tiny, unventilated home. Dinah Achayo had recently acquired a d.light S20 light, but previous to this she had, for years, been using a crude kerosene tin lamp (or ‘koroboyi’) to light her home. Beyond providing only a very dim light, the lamp produced thick black soot, making the air in her small home unbearably smoky and causing her terrible respiratory problems, made startlingly obvious with her laboured breathing. ‘It caused great discomfort. I struggled to breathe properly, but this new light is different - it is clean. Now I have a new bright light, I can sleep in a smoke-free room. I feel so happy knowing that my health will now improve and my chest will no longer hurt’ Dinah told me. It is no wonder, then, that the World Health Organization strongly discourages the use of kerosene to light homes.
So, there is both qualitative and quantitative evidence to suggest that even the smallest solar lighting products make a difference to lives. And indeed, while GOGLA’s 90 plus members offer a huge range of products at different price points, offering different benefits, it is the smaller single-light products that are providing that all important entry level. While their lighting services and quality may be lower than products in the higher Wp category, the household level savings are felt most significantly in relation to 0-1.5Wp lights, thanks to their lower price point.
The products that GOGLA members sell across the developing world vary enormously in their capability, but one common thread here is that these products all represent choice, and customer power. With so many products on the market, families and businesses alike are able to make effective and affordable choices which stand to transform their lives and improve their livelihoods.
While GOGLA sees a trajectory in the energy access market towards large solar home systems, right now it is not these larger systems, or even mini-grids, but rather the single-light (0-1.5Wp) products that are providing that critical first step on the energy staircase for millions of people. As the latest semi-annual market report shows, with just under 34% (nearly 1.28 million units) of total reported products sold worldwide attributed to these modest products, it is a case of small reaching the many, rather than large reaching the few.