UNCDF Energy Ladder Research

The first and second phases of the Energy Ladder Research project, a yearlong study in rural Uganda funded by the United Nations Capitol Development Fund CleanStart Programme, are nearly complete. The study aims to investigate end-user patterns of adoption of off-grid solar energy products in one district each in the central and the eastern regions of Uganda. Our first project announcement can be accessed here.

In the first phase of the project, Arne Jacobson and I organized a stakeholder workshop in Kampala, and visited and built familiarity with the districts under this study. During this phase, we also pilot tested the household phone survey and mapped the off-grid solar product distribution chain in these districts.

In the second phase of the project, I trained the survey team from the Center for Integrated Research and Community Development Uganda (CIRCODU), a Uganda-based organization specializing in field research on topics such as off-grid solar energy, the context and role of research, business models of data partners, and best practices for conducting interviews. During this phase, the CIRCODU team and I also initiated and completed the baseline surveys, which comprised short telephone interviews with 614 off-grid solar product buyers and longer face-to-face interviews with 117 of these respondents. This strategy helped save cost associated with implementing face-to-face interviews with a wider sample and at the same time provided the research depth that comes with in-person interviews, albeit for a smaller sub-sample. The phone surveys were used to gather critical data required for the study and the face-to-face surveys for verifying some of the responses received from phone surveys and for diving deeper into specific topics.

In the next stages of the project, I will prepare baseline survey data for analysis, consolidate early insights from the project based on the work so far, and prepare end-line surveys due to be implemented in January and February of 2017.

Surveyors from CIRCODU interview an off-grid solar product customer, Luwero, Uganda

Surveyors from CIRCODU interview an off-grid solar product customer, Luwero, Uganda

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Example of an electronics shop that also stocks solar components, Luwero, Uganda.

SERC Launches “The Energy Ladder Research” in Uganda

SERC has received a research grant from UNCDF’s CleanStart Programme to conduct a yearlong study in Uganda. This study aims to explore

  • solar energy product adoption patterns for off-grid rural users and if flexible consumer financing methods can help enable adoption of higher levels of access
  • if the use of off-grid solar products leads to improved communication by supporting the use of mobile phones and other similar devices
  • if, given the rise of mobile banking and pay-as-you-go sales models in the off-grid solar sector in East Africa, these solar products have the potential to increase access to mobile banking and similar digital financial services.

The adoption process of energy solutions by rural off-grid populations from basic lighting products to more sophisticated off-grid power systems is often explained by using the concept of an ‘energy ladder’. A ladder suggests a linear process of adoption involving substitution of inferior technologies with superior ones as users move up the rungs of the ladder. However, it is likely that while substitution does occur in some cases, energy adoption frequently involves fuel and technology “stacking”, in which new technologies are obtained but the original technologies are also retained.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 14 percent of people have access to grid electricity; however, nearly 70 percent now have access to mobile phones. While the demand for use of mobile phones is high in these regions, they often lack access to electricity and end up paying steep fees for phone charging services in the local market. A symbiotic relationship exists between increasing access to electricity in Africa and expanded use of information, communication and banking services using a mobile phone.

Our research team, which is led by Arne Jacobson, Richa Goyal, and Meg Harper, will take a rigorous look at these assumptions. We plan to initiate activities in March with a preliminary field visit to Uganda. The research initiative is jointly managed by UNCDF’s CleanStart Programme and Kat Harrison, Associate Director of Impact at Acumen, and is supported by the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, GSMA and the World Bank Group.