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Solar User Forum in Mindoro @ Jeff Leopando

Solar User Forums: A powerful and innovative tool for connecting with rural end users

In a village on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, a 42-year-old farmer named Susana used to contend with bats that would eat the fruits right off the branches of her trees at night. She acquired a solar lamp for her husband, who used it to patrol their property and scare the bats away. The change was swift and dramatic: after just one harvest season, the couple earned enough extra income to buy a second-hand motorcycle. Now, Susana and her husband can transport their fruits to town without needing to wait for public transportation, saving time and money as well as making life more convenient.

Susana’s story is among the many extraordinary testimonials of the life-changing impact of solar energy on rural Philippine households. She was a participant in a recent Solar User Forum (SUF), an innovative end user training module designed and implemented by Stiftung Solarenergie - Solar Energy Foundation Philippines (StS) and Hybrid Social Solutions (HSSi) in her community.

At the core of the SUF is an interactive training of solar lamp users that facilitates knowledge-sharing on best practices and the collection of product design feedback, user data and proof of impact. It is structured as a half-day conference of end-users (each ideally with 2-3 months of experience using SunTransfer products) and local community partners, facilitated by the staff of StS Philippines and HSSi.

The SUF begins with a brief essay-writing contest, which invites participants to answer two simple questions: “How have you used your solar lamp?” and “How has your solar lamp changed your life?” The responses are used to stimulate a moderated group discussion on the positive benefits of solar energy as well as on any concerns or problems that users have experienced with the technology. The most compelling stories are recognized and the best essay authors are invited to testify to the group and share their insights with their peers.

User training is conducted in through the format of games. In one game, participants compete to identify the different parts and functions of a solar lamp. In another, they work in groups to enumerate as many different ways of maximizing the life of their unit as they can within a specified time limit. The winning team is awarded a prize at the end of the event. Conducting end user training in this manner facilitates group interaction and fosters peer-to-peer learning. Participants maintain focus and retain new information for longer because the experience is fun and memorable.

Running in parallel with the essay contest, testimonials and user training games is a solar lamp clinic. SUF participants are invited to bring their solar lamps to the event so that any technical problems can be instantly addressed by the HSSi Area Manager. End users who submit their problem units to the staff at the beginning of the SUF may pick up their repaired units by the end of the same event provided that they undergo a brief re-training on proper usage and maintenance practices. The rapid response to users’ concerns builds trust in the brand and ensures that loan repayments on the products are not compromised.

Taken as a holistic module, the SUF offers a number of benefits for key stakeholders. Users get the chance to learn from how to maximize use of their solar lamp and secure immediate assistance in resolving any technical issues. The partner organization observes the impact of its services on beneficiaries and collects feedback for service improvement. SunTransfer, StS Philippines and HSSi also gain an opportunity to collect user feedback for future product and service development.

Indeed, the impact of the SUF extends beyond the event itself. Dissemination of users’ stories raises awareness on the realities of off-grid life, and their testimonials confirm the viability of rural solar energy applications. Empowerment-related goals are also furthered, as users who practice best solar lamp use and maintenance practices are recognized by their peers as experts to be emulated, and participants feel that their voices are heard and their concerns are addressed. Lastly, the SUF strengthens relationships between community members and partner organizations, as well as among HSSi, StS Philippines, distribution partners and community partners. The shared experience of the SUF lays the foundation for building a strong and vibrant community of rural solar energy users.

© Jeff Leopando

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