Why customers - and the choices they make - are the heart of the off-grid solar sector

Geoffrey Mbaji has four children and lives in a village outside Kisumu, in Kenya, with no grid connection. I met Geoffrey in a local store while he was waiting to collect his new solar home system that comes with a 16 inch LED television. “I’m taking home the TV because I need it for my kids, and because we don’t have power right now,” explained Geoffrey. “My family are very excited!”

Geoffrey is a loyal off-grid solar customer. Having previously owned a smaller lighting system, which he paid off in full, he is now upgrading his system like tens of thousands of other Kenyans. Across Kenya alone, there were more than 28,000 sales of larger solar home systems in the second half of 2016, and globally this figure was over 172,000. Although small scale single-light units are still the best sellers, the sector is observing a clear trajectory in off-grid consumers around the developing world investing in larger systems as they climb the ‘energy staircase’.

Caleb Wendot and his family watch their television for the first time, following the installation of their solar home system (Photo: Jeffrey Michael Walcott) 

The product range on offer to savvy customers, like Geoffrey, is increasing all the time. Geoffrey upgraded to a TV for his children, but his initial rationale to purchase his first home system was one of self-sufficiency and energy independence. “Since Kenya Power and Lighting has not supplied power to my house, I decided to use a solar home system for my people, and get power myself before Kenya Power can connect me,” he said. This technology means Geoffrey and others don’t have to wait to be connected to the grid.

About two hours north of where Geoffrey lives, I met Caleb Wendot and his family in their remote home. Caleb lives outside the village of Kapsengere, five kilometres from Kiboswa, the nearest town with a grid connection. Like Geoffrey, Caleb was upgrading to a larger solar home system with a TV. When I asked about his hopes for the new system, Caleb said “I hope to be able to catch up on the news, and maybe some funny games too!”. With seven children, there may well be a fight over TV time. Caleb went on to tell me “I want to get my friends to buy this also. I will invite them to come and see that the TV works so they trust the product.” Finally, he added with great pride; “I like to promote these products to others, and I will be happy to share the TV and show people!”

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I asked Edwin, the company representative overseeing the installation at Caleb’s house, about other households in the neighbourhood. “Most of them are using just a stand-alone light or a kerosene lantern, but I know they would prefer the big system!”— an aspiration felt stronger when you see your neighbour using such a system. Edwin had collected details of interested neighbours during the trip to Kapsengere. “I expect to get many calls tomorrow!” he told me happily. Penetration in rural areas relies heavily on word of mouth and trust. Caleb’s neighbours saw his solar home system working and used his power to charge their phones, so they know the product is of good quality and can be relied on. Meanwhile, the grid is miles away or painfully unreliable.

Beyond increasing purchasing power and perpetuating trust in products and services, the customer can play an influential role in the design of systems too. In the case of one leading company, operating in East Africa, feedback from customers gets considered in new product development. I met George Ogwayo, a brand ambassador for the company who told me “we take the complaints of customers and we pass them onto colleagues in R&D. When they produce a new product they upgrade it with the feedback customers give”.

Across Africa and other developing regions, the off-grid solar community is helping to decentralize power. The off-grid solar providers offering high-quality products and services are allowing customers to make choices that best fit their own needs. Whether that need is to leapfrog larger ‘traditional’ grid-based energy, or to have a television to gain better access to information and entertainment, the consumer is moving the sector forward. It’s power to the people, in more ways than one.

This article is part of a series of posts on the off-grid solar sector we'll publish in the run-up to the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo (22 - 24 January 2018, Hong Kong).

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