|Nairobi solar lantern shop, July 12th 2012|
The Economist’s Q3 2012 Technology Quarterly has a paean on the promise of solar lanterns replacing nasty, stinky kerosene once and for all. Of note is the careful mention of MKopa, a Nairobi based startup founded by Nick Hughes of MPesa fame, until now conducting pilot tests in stealth mode. But the rest of the article is still the usual rehash of the immense promise of solar lighting to finally get rid of that incumbent fossil fuel, something social enterprises like d.light have been attempting to fulfill for some 4 or 5 years now.
Why isn’t anyone asking what’s taking so long for this mythical promise to bear fruit? I’d like to start by deconstructing the article and identifying the implicit underlying assumptions that tend to trip the promise keepers.
As previously happened with mobile phones, solar lighting is falling in price, improving in quality and benefiting from new business models that make it more accessible and affordable to those at the bottom of the pyramid. And its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.
Show me the case study of a successful example of this product becoming a sustainable business proposition. Every company mentioned in the article is either in pilot testing new business models or talking about their performance and brightness, even while distributing via NGOs. If this is a consumer product business for patient capital then why aren’t the Chinese brands waiting (or mentioned, for that matter)?
Phones spread quickly because they provided a substitute for travel and poor infrastructure, helped traders find better prices and boosted entrepreneurship. For a fisherman or a farmer, buying a mobile phone made sense because it paid for itself within a few months. The economic case for solar lighting is even clearer: buying a lamp that charges in the sun during the day, and then produces light at night, can eliminate spending on the kerosene that fuels conventional lamps.
The economic case might be clearer but the reality is far more complex than that. Lets compare the market entry strategies of mobile manufacturers in their pioneering heydays and the solar lantern makers. Where is the user research and consumer insight on existing household energy usage and purchasing patterns that might shed a light on this ongoing multi-year promise?
The mobile phone is a personal asset. Most people put aside bits and bobs of cash towards their purchase of their phone. It belongs to them and there is prideful ownership and status involved with models and brands.
The solar lantern is not a personal asset. It belongs to and will be used by the entire household. There may be more than one adult earning member of such households. The decision making involved is one of group dynamics, never as simple or easy as that of an individual purchase.
Eliminating spending on kerosene is not the same as generating income by the way of the phone.
Additionally, the phone has become a ‘must have’ and is aspirational, in addition to connecting you instantly to your social network. Small and portable solar lanterns are not yet status symbols nor aspirational in anyway, given that much of the marketing communication places emphasis on saving money on kerosene. Whooptydoo, says the subsistence farmer whose dreams might include TV sets and radios, to be added over time, in modular fashion, to the solar home system.
In an informal test of solar lights carried out by The Economist in Africa, users grumbled about the soapy quality of light and lantern-style design. But the company has won plaudits for its other models: its largest lamp, the S250, was included by the British Museum in its “History of the World in 100 Objects” exhibition as the 100th object. .
I mean, really, The Economist? That is weaselling out of accurate consumer feedback isn’t it, if you state that users (the people who are going to sustain the businesses remember by purchasing the devices) don’t like the lanterns but hey, look, the British Museum likes it. Remember the design awards granted to the LifeStraw? Look at what happens to them:
Carefully hidden away in case someone comes to check up on the beneficiaries of generous charity. When asked why it wasn’t in daily use, the response was that it was far too difficult and took too much time when it was easier to pour a 20 cent bottle of purifier into a bucket.
The article ends with a product that’s a concept developed in a studio. Who is hoping and how that this designer device will magically obtain a viable business plan with effective distribution and sales? The Economist might have been better off focusing on MKopa and Eight19’s efforts to experiment with new pay as you go business models, though I can already see their solution’s limitations particularly in the Kenyan market’s context. They could have talked about Econet Solar or Angaza or MeraGao in India, in the same vein of experimental business models instead of defaulting to the hopeful batteries and museum pieces that will grace the dusty shelves of retail outlets.
Btw, that SunKing you bought in an African supermarket? How many rural low income BoP customers shop there, do you know?