The challenges of field-testing off-grid refrigerators – Learning Paper

The Ideas to Impact programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), is testing whether prizes can stimulate innovative solutions to longstanding development challenges for low-income households. Target areas include climate change adaptation and access to energy, water and sanitation.
Within the energy access theme, the Global LEAP Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition aims to encourage the development of off-grid energy-efficient refrigerators that are affordable and suitable for communities in areas without access to electricity.
Since 2017, IMC Worldwide, Energy 4 Impact and CLASP have been testing off-grid refrigerators submitted by global manufacturers to determine efficiency, reliability and design appropriateness for off-grid users. The competition shortlisted 24 models from 57 submissions, based on energy and performance efficiency.
The submitted products with a capacity range of 50L-212L were grouped into three categories: refrigerators, refrigerators-freezer combinations and freezers. Most products are already commercially available but the competition also accepted those at development stage.
The "Learning Paper" summarises some of the challenges faced during the second stage, and how the team worked around them, ensuring the competition remained fair and relevant. 
Main takeaways
To our knowledge, the Global LEAP Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition team has been the first to conduct this type of test in the field, which entailed a number of unknowns and challenges. These range from developing a methodology from scratch through to grappling with an underdeveloped market. Some of the issues we faced could have been prevented, while others would have been too hard to plan and budget for as these were not anticipated. Moreover, foreseeing the amount of time needed to solve them was impossible. 
Challenges include:
Finding suitable entrepreneurs to test the fridges. We knew that the market for off-grid energy-efficient fridges was not well developed, which is why we ran this competition. What we did not know though, contrary to the current assumption, is that the appropriate consumer for an off-grid refrigeration business use case is not prevalent. While the number of people off the grid is high, we found out that the number of Ugandan entrepreneurs who own relatively large shops, need fridges to store their products and are still off the grid is lower than expected. This reality made it challenging for us to find suitable entrepreneurs to test the fridges.
Selecting appropriate remote monitoring systems capable of capturing important data. We also encountered issues related to the underdevelopment of this market, especially finding remote monitoring systems suitable for off-grid areas that were able to collect all the technical data we required and did not fail in the field. After various attempts looking for the most suitable meter and even working with manufacturers to improve their functionalities, we had to scale down our ambitions.
An adaptive and flexible approach has been vital. It has allowed us to rethink the field-testing methodology based on the lessons learned in real time to ensure the competition proceeded in the best possible way. We decided for example to reduce the data set we would collect, omitting humidity and external temperature.
It is important to anticipate problems which might arise at any stage during the project implementation.
To address this, a deeper understanding of the local context is necessary. This includes awareness of local regulations or requirements for imported products in a specific country. Furthermore, it is key to detecting issues as soon as possible and rectifying them before they escalate and risk endangering a whole project. Where they cannot be anticipated, creativity and flexibility are crucial to redress situations. Shipping the fridges from the Netherlands to Uganda in separate lots below US$ 2,000 each in value, for a total of 11 packages, allowed us to successfully bring the appliances to their destination.
Finally, being able to rely on a local team of credible partners is key. Their support is invaluable to help address challenges that ranged from reaching remote locations through to helping managing relationships with fridges users.
Ideas to Impact is an action-research programme with a strong learning mandate. It is our hope that these lessons will help inform future initiatives that aim to catalyse innovation to improve the lives of poor households.

Authors: Daniel Kuria, Energy 4 Impact / Makena Ireri, CLASP / Lorenza Geronimo, IMC Worldwide

Excerpt of: Learning Paper: The Challenges of Field-Testing Off-Grid Refrigerators (Ideas to Impact, 2019). Download the full paper here.


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