Why Solar Is Not the Solution (Yet)

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Whit selling Burro's new battery-operated cell phone charger in Ghana, October 2010.

A recent article in the New York Times looked at the use of small-scale solar-powered energy solutions in the developing world, focusing on remote villagers in Kenya who are using solar panels to power lighting devices and charge their cell phones. Since I am in the middle of writing the last chapter of my book about selling sustainable energy solutions in Ghana, the article was well timed. As it happens, this particular chapter I’m writing has to do with designing lighting and other products for Africa.

Whenever I tell people that my brother Whit is providing batteries and cell phone chargers to off-grid villages in Ghana, the first question I get asked is, “What about solar?” It seems that everybody wants solar to be the solution in Africa, and articles like the recent Times piece feed into that. I guess that’s because it sounds so easy: you just hook up a panel, plug in some devices, and voila!–electricity problem solved. We can all go home and feel good about it.

The reality is not so simple, but given the knee-jerk interest in solar, I suppose it bears explaining why Whit is not selling solar devices (at least not yet).

The biggest problem with solar powered devices is cost. Although the Times article did mention that the devices in the article cost a whopping $80 each, the reporter glossed over what a huge hurdle that price is for extremely poor people. For someone earning roughly a dollar a day, a typical home solar setup would cost about three months’ labor. To put that in perspective, the average American family earns $50,000 a year, perhaps $40,000 after taxes. Three months’ take-home pay amounts to $10,000. Would you spend $10K on a solar flashlight, even if you lived off-grid? I think not. I don’t think you would buy such a flashlight if it only represented a week’s pay, or even a day’s pay. One expert quoted in the Times story acknowledges there is currently no “business model” for distributing these solar devices to the world’s poor. No kidding!

But cost is just one problem. Efficiency is another. Whit has tested lots of these solar lighting devices over the past two years, and most frankly suck. Even after charging in full sun for a whole day, most cannot provide useable light for more than a few hours. That’s with full sun. But while poor countries all around the world are often in very hot climates, few are in deserts. There are cloudy days–lots of them–and under cloud cover these devices perform even less reliably.

Social and cultural obstacles also loom. For solar panels to work, villagers must leave them outdoors all day, hooked up to their devices–a lantern or cell phone charger, whatever. That leaves the unit highly vulnerable to theft, since most poor rural people leave their homes all day to go farm or sell in markets. You might think theft is a small problem in tiny off-grid villages where everybody knows everybody else–I certainly thought so before coming to Ghana–but you would be wrong. Sad as it may seem, there are people who would steal even from their extremely poor neighbors. I have seen this happen personally. And while the chance of theft is indeed small, someone who has invested three months’ pay in a solar panel simply cannot afford any risk of theft at all.

Finally there is the issue of product longevity. Solar panels don’t have moving parts and can last a long time, but they are not impervious to damage, especially in the harsh conditions of the developing world. What happens when it stops working? This is another huge risk that poor people simply cannot afford. Meanwhile, the devices powered by these panels also break down. Many people don’t realize that solar-powered devices contain batteries, which of course store the power gathered all day for use during the night. Like all batteries, they eventually wear out.

These reasons help explain why Whit has built his business around selling inexpensive and environmentally-friendly rechargeable batteries that can work in any standard battery-operated appliance, not solar panels and devices with dedicated storage batteries. (Whit’s batteries are collected and recharged at Burro’s central office, where electric power is supplied by the Akosambo Dam.) This might not seem as sexy or high-tech or elegant as solar power, but it costs his customers literally a few pennies per charge, and allows them to have cheap, portable lights and cell phone power anytime, anyplace, regardless of cloudy days. Is there a “business model” for this? Well, I’ve seen customers lining up to buy from him, with their own hard-earned cash.

Think about it this way: How many solar-powered flashlights do you own? I’m guessing not one. But I bet you have several battery-powered flashlights in your house (even if you can never find them when the power goes out), to say nothing of the iPods and laptops and cell phones and other gadgets you own. Well, guess what? Africans want the same thing! They just want to be able to stick a battery in a device and turn it on, not wait for the sun to come out. They want to pay a few cents for power, not trade six goats for the privilege.

Which gets at the core of Whit’s business. Burro’s product offerings are not the result of  some top-down strategy designed by “experts” in London or New York, who think they know what’s good for poor people. (Usually something they would never personally use.) His business is entirely dependent on listening to his customers, at the village level, and providing solutions that they ask for. Incidentally, as Whit often says, someday that solution could be solar. And when solar-powered products make sense for his customers, he’ll be there.

4 Comments

  • Kate Ford wrote:
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    I would be keen to talk to you about some of the problems facing solar in ghana you mention. Might it be possible for you to send me an email, I’m not sure how to get in touch with you. Best regards, Kate

  • Cincopa video hosting solution for your website. Another great product from Cincopa Send Files.

    Kate, sorry I took so long to reply. Are you still interested in talking?

  • Rabbi Eliezer Spaeth wrote:
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    Love your book & what you % your brother are doing. Was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria. Question: how hard is it to make those rechargeable batteries? Africa is so rich in natural resources. Can’t this light manufacturing be done locally? And, nothing personal, but how about giving the brand an indigenous, African look-and-feel? May you be blessed with much success bettering the lives of many people

  • Cincopa video hosting solution for your website. Another great product from Cincopa Send Files.

    Thanks for the kind words. The reality is that all batteries today are being made in China; there is not yet the infrastructure in Africa for that sort of manufacturing. My brother does hope that someday it will be possible to make batteries and appliances like the lights themselves in Africa. Until that becomes possible, his desire is to give Africans the best quality available for their money.

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