Eva Oberender, REEEP’s Programme Director attended the third Lighting Africa conference in Dakar, Senegal from 13-15 November 2012, and also chaired a session there. Here she shares her impressions from this major gathering of advocates for off-grid lighting in Africa.
Major progress has been made
As a longtime supporter of the Lighting Africa initiative, REEEP was invited to speak at this 3rd Lighting Africa conference. I was very impressed to see how much progress has been made in bringing clean lighting to off-grid consumers on the continent and beyond.
The conference was very well attended, from Ministers through to practitioners, and there was also really strong involvement from local agencies, particularly the Senegalese Agency for Rural Electrification (ASER). Unfortunately, I only had one day at the conference, and my biggest miss was not enough time in the exhibition hall with all the manufacturers, distributors and other proponents of the successful solutions now on the market.
How the public sector can help the private sector
Since REEEP increasingly focuses on successful business models that bring clean energy solutions to the poor, I very much enjoyed the session on Going to Scale: Business Models for Off-Grid Lighting which looked at the different roles business and government play and how they should complement each other.
The take-off in the lighting market is proof that the private sector is alive and vital. In fact, the dominant message was that subsidies off-grid lighting solutions are not necessary and it’s best to leave it to the market forces to sort out the pricing. Where the public sector can really be effective in spreading off-grid lighting solutions is in awareness-raising, and in removing basic barriers to doing business.
Reaching the last mile
Reaching the last mile was the title of a highly interesting session that I had the pleasure to chair. The topic was a great fit because REEEP has often funded projects that make that final step to the off-grid customer. (For example, you can read here about how farmers traded crops for solar powered lighting in the Solomon Islands.)
We had three interesting speakers who were knowledgeable, fun to talk with, and really keen to share:
- Steve Andrews from SolarAID and Sunny Money, who are working through schools as distribution points for off-grid lighting, and making use of teachers as a trusted source for raising awareness.
- Dennis Tessier from Appropriate Rural Technology Institute, ARTI, who talked about the role of district level wholesalers in getting the products to rural consumers
- Bozhil Kondev from the German aid organisation GIZ on distribution and retail chain issues that were pointed out in their study
The highly stimulating presentations describing successful distribution and marketing channels sparked a lively discussion and not even the 45 minutes we had seemed to be enough. However, we saw several key findings coming out of this interesting exchange:
- First, you have to have a good product that people will trust, so a branded product with trusted quality is important
- Getting to remote, rural communities is not easy, and you need trusted individuals – and enough of them – behind the actual distribution
- It makes more sense to use existing points of sale and teaching them about solar lighting, rather than trying to build new networks from scratch
- For the customer, the retailer or distributor is the actual face of the product, and they are the “brand” that customers come back to for service or with problems, not necessarily the manufacturer
Putting it all in context of other industries, such as the one of mobile phones, solar lighting with its 800,000 sales to date still has a way to go before matching that track record.
The session concluded with a reminder of an earlier remark that day – “Product is King, but distribution is God”.