Lighting Lab: Solar a Dominant Power

For the past five years, SERC has helped lead the development of the Lighting Global quality assurance framework for small, solar-powered lights sold in countries ranging from Kenya to India. In 2009, a team of researchers from SERC, working with sponsorship from the Lighting Africa program (Lighting Global and Lighting Africa are associated programs of the World Bank Group), found that solar lamps represented a single-digit fraction of the off-grid lights available in markets in selected Kenyan towns. A follow-up visit in 2012 found that solar lamps had expanded to about a third of market share in these towns. This year when we returned to the same Kenyan towns, we discovered that solar products now represent a large majority (over 70%) of the total sales volume of off-grid lights in the market. Given that kerosene wick lamps and cheap, dry-cell battery flashlights had dominated the off-grid lighting market, the shift toward solar-powered LED lights represents a huge step forward in improving energy access for the rural poor.

SERC alum Peter Alstone (front) and UC Berkeley graduate student Dimitry Gershenson (back) interview retailers in Kericho, Kenya.

In partnership with the Energy Resources Group at UC Berkeley, the team broadened the scope of the research to include mapping the supply chain for solar lights in Kenya and investigating the growing potential for pay-as-you-go financing for solar home systems and small solar lights. Through dozens of meetings with distributors, micro-finance institutions, private companies, and NGOs in Nairobi, we were able to observe the positive impact of Lighting Africa’s engagement with key market stakeholders. The biggest decision-makers in the off-grid lighting supply chain are now dealing almost exclusively with products that meet the Lighting Global minimum quality standards. Looking forward, there is still much work to do. For example, many retailers still sell substandard off-grid lighting products, and there is a need to engage with these vendors and their customers to ensure they have information about product quality and performance when they look to buy an off-grid lighting product.