Leapfrog from no energy access to a solar powered TV is starting to take hold with the support of new energy solutions, banking systems and micro-financing models, in developing regions, with particular intensity in Eastern Africa and India. However the final solution to the energy access challenge has not been found yet, and technology might once more offer the answer the off-grid sector is looking for.
The number of solar installations all around the globe and in particular in developing regions, has seen in the past decade an impressive growth, with a further predicted increase of 30% in the next five years (CAGR).
Solar photovoltaic provides solutions not only for energy access in rural areas (off-grid), but also for urban areas in regions where the grid is unstable (rooftop). Both, households and businesses, can benefit from this technology allowing a decentralised, sustainable and affordable energy production, ultimately playing a fundamental role in terms of economical development. Solar energy access can be used, for example, to power agricultural equipment or to provide electricity for running a fruitful business with longer opening hours and improved services. Photovoltaic installations, can be the key to give a new kick to economies that have been until now locked in the dark.
The off-grid sector is complex and full of challenges: from last-mile product distribution to after-sales customer services (O&M) and local human resources acquisition. However several companies have started acting in this field aiming at finally creating profitable businesses with a sustainable social impact. Innovative business models as the well known Pay-As-You-Go or Rent-to-Own systems, coupled with the spread of digital banking solutions have undoubtedly been vital for the first success cases. In particular, the presence of digital money has been one of the leverage element to determine the readiness of local markets for the introduction of such new technology.
In this exciting leapfrogging game a constantly increasing number people is switching from a condition of full darkness after 6 PM to the possibility -in the luckiest cases- of watching a television program powered exclusively by green energy. Another surprising leapfrog effect is observed with the switch from the total absence of any banking system to the sudden access to smart digital banking solutions. The off-grid sector is now ready for the next leap that will bring the impact of this technology to the next step.
It’s a matter of education. At present, impact key performance indicators (KPI) often include the number of households powered by Solar Home Systems or the number of businesses (energy for productive uses) that have taken off due to the presence of PV installations. The solar powered economic development could be in the near future also quantified by the number of people trained and then employed locally by solar installers. Thus, vocational trainings for skill development are a real need.
The Enlight Academy is among the first pioneers in the field, and they are training the new generation of future solar technicians in Uganda with the support of LEDsafari for the development of a standardised curriculum as well as a systematic evaluation method. This work was financed by Signify foundation.
Local people with deep-rooted technical skills are highly demanded and the demand will rise exponentially within the next few years. Furthermore, field trainings are expensive and time consuming processes for solar companies: digital technologies, once more, arise as potential solutions.
Online training, offline practice. In the same way as buying a new pair of shoes from an online shop and getting them delivered at home is not the same as choosing and trying them in a nice boutique; an online training will never be able to fully substitute the dedicated work of in-person trainers. However, we should recognize that it can be extremely helpful.
A large number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are already offered by several universities on digital platforms bearing a strong academic approach, which is not practically oriented. Ad hoc online tools could support the learning process and decrease the time of in-person training thus reducing the costs for the solar companies. Most importantly, this can give the chance to access such information to people in remote areas with scarce mobility options due to the impossibility to leave farms, fields and families. Also, refugees camps constitute a further setting that bears the same critical combination of no energy access and low mobility options.
The challenges are not over: According to the Digital 2018 report, the internet penetration with respect of population, ranges between 12% and 39% in Sub-Saharan regions (global average = 53%). It is worth noticing the specific case of Kenya and Ghana that have experienced a growth of +39% and +27% respectively during the year 2017.
The increasing number of end-users being well accustomed to digitalization, smartphones and social media, gives good cause for hope with respect of the acceptance of an online educational tool.
[Growth in internet users — Image from: https://digitalreport.wearesocial.com/; accessed on 9/8/2018]
Online learning is well known to be critical for participants motivation and concentration. How this could work in rural contexts of developing regions?
Beyond connectivity, for a successful completion of an online training a strong extrinsic motivation is essential and a good candidate could be the possibility of getting employed by a local solar installer company. Possibly, the company itself could ask his future employee to follow an online course as a preliminary condition to the hiring process.
What is it an online training? Let’s start from what is not: a monotonous set of slides that the users are passively staring at, waiting for a spontaneous knowledge flow from the computer desktop to their brains. The average attention span during a normal lecture is about of half an hour, dropping to even lower values when the content is presented online: after fifteen minutes, the learning game would be over.
An online training has to be engaging, dynamic and interactive. When translating the self-determination theory of learning to the e-learning context it seems essential to: first, allow a process of self-discovery, second let the users benefit from the possibility of self-sequencing and pacing of the content delivery. Last but not least, the relatedness is essential, both intended as peers-to-peers support and student-trainer communication.
Could the leap from a condition of no or little vocational trainings to an innovative pedagogical and learner-centric training system be the next one to take place? Thus allowing a much larger population reach, which could not be trained and empowered otherwise?
About LEDsafari: LEDsafari is based out of Lausanne, Switzerland and develops innovative digital products to help solar companies in developing countries. LEDsafari flagship product, an online training platform (HelioLearn©) uses a unique pedagogy and easy to understand content, which makes it easy to train people with low technical background on PV technologies. LEDsafari has worked with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Swiss Re Foundation, Signify (former Philips) Lighting Foundation, Mahindra Susten (India), UN and is member of GOGLA (Global Off-Grid Lighting Association), ARE (Alliance for Rural Electrification), ISA (International Solar Alliance), Climate Kic, EIT Digital Alumni, InnoEnergy CommUnity.
Silvia Binet is Training developer at LEDsafari, Switzerland