This post is part of a series by dMBA students as part of their Social Venture summer course. To view previous posts, click here.
By Anna Acquistapace
Rural electrification is a serious challenge all over the world. In Tanzania, 75% of the population lives in rural areas with an electrification rate so low, it’s barely worth mentioning. The Lighting Africa Project estimates it to be around 2%. While people in urban and sub-urban areas aspire to get access to the national power grid, despite its unreliable service, rural areas some will be waiting a lifetime before seeing an electrical line come their way. During a home stay with a rural farming family outside of Dar es Salaam, we were able to see first hand the necessity and opportunity of developing solutions for off-grid electrification that are accessible for these rural populations.
Mzee Mganga, our host, and his family have been farming their land for over 20 years. They grow cassava, sweet potatoes, millet, bananas and watermelons to bring to market. Their house, which is about an hour’s walk from the nearest bus stop, does not have electricity. Nor do most in the area. They use typical sources for their energy needs: wood charcoal for cooking, kerosene for small lamps and batteries for LED headlamps and the radio, which was an almost constant buzz in the background. While these sources are not ideal–they cause indoor air pollution, provide low quality light and increase risks of accidental fires–they are readily available at local markets.
As we observed Mzee’s sons using their mobile phones, we realized there was one thing they couldn’t stock up on at the market: a way to charge their mobile phones. So, we asked where they charge their phones and were surprised to find out that they just drop it off with their neighbor who recently installed a home solar system. For about 20 cents, they get a full charge. This is a big change from walking more than an hour to the nearest town for a recharge.
Their neighbor, Issa, is a retired army officer who moved out to the countryside to live the simple life. About eight months ago, he installed a small 40W solar panel to run two lights and charge his phone. When we asked him what motivated him to install solar, he explained that he was used to living with electricity in Dar es Salaam. But now, he told us with a chuckle, he has unintentionally started a phone charging business that charges up to 14 batteries a day.
We wondered why there weren’t more people with solar in the area. In talking with Mzee, Issa and other neighboring farmers (with the help of our trusted translator Glory!), we quickly realized that, although solar power was widely desirable, the price tag for a solar home system was far beyond what most in the area could afford. We asked if they had considered more affordable portable solar products, but none of them had heard of these options.
This brings us to one of the major issues about solar that we’ve uncovered in the field. Several companies, like d.light and Barefoot Solar, are making good headway in developing affordable consumer solar products. They are making portable lights that can charge phones and don’t require installation.
The problem is, these products are nowhere to be found in the most frequented markets. While mobile phone stores are ubiquitous and televisions, radios and generators fill the stands at central marketplaces, solar products are reserved for specialty stores that sell expensive solar packages or for limited distribution by NGOs.
It’s apparent that there is a huge commercial potential for solar solutions, especially in places beyond the grid. Annual expenditures on kerosene alone in Sub-Saharan Africa is $17 billion, according to the World Bank. But, the lack of consumer awareness and effective distribution of affordable solar products remain serious challenges to getting the market off the ground. Solar provides a clean, convenient and, after the initial investment, free energy source. For several of the farmers we spoke with, the prospect of owning their own energy source, like they own their land, is very appealing.
The price of solar technology components are expected to fall significantly in the next 5 years, reducing the overall cost of products by up to 40%. This will help with the affordability, but there is also a real need for innovation on the business and distribution side to get solar into the hands of the people who want to buy them.
What if solar products were as accessible as kerosene lanterns? What if they were as widespread as mobile phones?
How can solar products be widely distributed for an affordable price?
The “Social Ventures – Energy in Africa” series follows three MBA in Design Strategy students in their Social Venture summer course. Starting with research and fieldwork conducted in and around Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Anna Acquistapace, Olivia Nava and Eric Persha explore how business can be used to create positive social impact. California College of the Art’s MBA in Design Strategy is a groundbreaking program preparing the next generation of innovation leaders through a curriculum that unites design methodologies, business fundamentals, leadership and systems thinking. You can follow along with the series here.