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3 Reasons Off-Grid Solar Energy Isn’t Yet Serving the Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa

The sun above us gives abundant, free and renewable energy. This source of power is pouring over the earth mostly unused. It has the potential to help many people, and yet in the 2016 World Energy Outlook it was reported that 16% of the world's population did not have access to electricity.

Experts argue that this is not due to a lack of technological skills, but rather a problem in the energy industry. Let’s look at three reasons why the world's poorest populations do not yet have access to power.

Clarifying the Problem

In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of the population live in areas that are not linked up with an electrical grid. Off-grid energy is the only option for these people. Research has shown that renewable sources such as the sun and water are producing enough energy in these areas to give off at least ten times the power that the population would require. And yet, for the most part, that free and available energy has not yet been tapped.

Statistics show that 95% of those who live without electricity are from sub-Saharan Africa or rural Asia, and most of these are in the countryside. Over the last decade, researchers have argued that the rates are likely to increase rather than decrease. This pattern is because the population is rising faster than people can implement electrification.

Experts expect the numbers of people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity to grow to almost 700 million by the year 2030. This prediction is disheartening. Solar power has the potential to make this number fall, not rise. Why is it trending in the wrong direction?

Why Is the Bottom of The Wealth Pyramid Underserved by The Energy Industry?

So, why is the lower part of the wealth pyramid still living in energy poor conditions? Here are three reasons.

The Right Business Model Has Not Been Developed

The typical business model centers around a service or product that are sold for a price. This model ensures profit and growth for the organization. Within the solar energy market space, many companies have come up with excellent products and services.

However, because the people that need these products live on a budget of as low as $3,000 per year, there is very little available money for buying the products. Companies have found a way around this by starting up pay as you go programs. These eliminate the barrier of a large lump sum that is due but still prevent an obstacle to many.

We can see that the pay as you go model is working but is that the best the industry can do? What else is possible regarding payment methods?  A new business model could take away the barrier for purchasing a small solar lamp for a family living in poverty.

This fresh approach could allow for more work hours, more yearly income in the future. A business model that accounted for this long-term growth could make solar energy to more people.

There Is a Knowledge Barrier

Those who live in rural areas without electricity have limited communication outlets with the rest of the world. This communication gap can create a barrier for a solar energy company looking to sell a product.

The company will need to come up with creative ways to market, advertise, and educate their customers. Growing off-grid energy businesses have come up with education protocols that involve community interaction and classes.

What are some ways that a off-grid solar energy business could overcome the knowledge barrier? Inara Scott, in her research through Oregon State University, makes the following suggestions.

  • Involve community members at the targeted sales location
  • Teach locals in the potential sales area to become trainers themselves
  • Train initial customers that are interested and curious to also function as future technicians
  • Research the customer's social norms, cultural values and traditions for better customer interactions
  • Form partnerships with nonprofit or government agencies that might be able to help with sales and marketing.

Limited Distribution Methods Present a Challenge

The final reason that off-grid solar energy is not yet accessible to those living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is delivery methods. Rural areas without modern shipping infrastructure will present a barrier.

Companies must look at this obstacle as a challenge that could lead to innovative new business models. An off-grid energy company could create a network of local African employees that work in the rural areas and have the means to transport goods to surrounding villages and towns.

Why is it important to know about these three reasons? When we are clear about the problem, we have a better idea about where to focus our problem-solving resources. The poorest populations are also those with the most to gain from access to off-grid energy. New approaches could help the energy industry start to serve this community.

Jackie Edwards is a researcher, editor and writer.