Many people misconceive the possibilities and limits of a sustainable energy supply with solar energy. Customers in off-grid regions can be most easily convinced by a good example: A solar home system, installed in an off-grid household, persuades users usually within a short time – and also arouses the demand for other devices, of which the TV is usually the first.
But awareness must also be raised in developed countries because for many investors and donors developing countries consist of people who have no financial means. But "arm" does not mean "destitute", and the rapid spread of mobile phones is an impressive example: where there is a need, products will also be purchased, if someone delivers them.
But even when you know, as inhabitant of an off-grid region, what is possible with solar energy, a new problem comes quickly: where are the products available? Most solar companies have their office in the capital and expect the customers to come to them. It would be however necessary to build a distribution network, as it already exists for many other products, from soft drinks to beer to mobile phones and clothes. Nevertheless, this requires two things from local businesses: long-term corporate thinking and sufficient financial resources. Both together can be found only rarely, and actually only a handful of companies really try to build a truly professional distribution network in rural areas. Examples include Orb and OnEnergy in India or SunTransfer and Mobisol in East Africa.
The acquisition costs of solar products are often too high for the customers to pay in cash. This is in Africa and Asia not different than in Europe or the United States with solar systems. While in the latter continents, however, usually a bank makes a loan available, people in developing countries are generally cutt off from this financial option. Most manufacturers solve the problem by creating new ones: either they reduce the product quality as required for the product to be affordable (but for this reason it only works a short time) or the products are reduced to mobile micro-devices (and the goal of an effective energy supply is given up).
The only reasonable option, the sale on installments, requires of course a good management as well as the appropriate technology, which actively supports the payment by installments. Then, such a payment technology, in combination with a rural distribution network, makes also quality products affordable. It is a welcome development of recent years, that now more and more companies offer such possibilities of hire purchase (usually incorrectly referred to as "pay-as-you-go").
For a professional after sales service, customer relationships do not end with the conclusion of a transaction, but are maintained for a product’s entire duration of use. Unfortunately, solar companies, especially in developing countries, grant after sales service much too little importance. This is fatal, as substantial deficits in after sales service are currently one of the reasons for solar products’ negative image among large portions of the population in rural regions. Poor after sales management is, notably, not compensated for by other positive factors, such as first-class quality. Service realized after sales is decisive in a product’s success or failure and in customer satisfaction.
Many solar products only concentrate on the obvious primary need for solar energy: replacing kerosene lamps. The advantages are apparent: fast tangible results which are easy to measure and relatively cheap to achieve. The real potential of solar energy, i.e. to achieve sustainable economic and social development is, however, not being exploited by a long way. On the contrary: If there is no local after-sales service, these entry level products can soon damage the reputation of solar technology.
The biggest challenge for the future will be to meet the demand of the people at the bottom of the income pyramid with a truly professional all-round supply of energy and appliances (fan, TV, tablet, shaver, cook stoves, etc.). Only then a really substantial change of the living conditions can be expected.
Harald Schützeichel is Founder/Director of Stiftung Solarenergie – Solar Energy Foundation and Founder/CEO of SunTransfer
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Comment by Manfred Gorgus on January 17, 2014
Manfred Gorgus – Editor SOLAR-professionell
Comment by Christian Bouda on January 15, 2014
How true, how true – I could not add anything – precisely observed.
Mag. Chr. Bouda, CEO – Ghelenergy