Information Needs Drive Demand for Off-Grid Solar Products

Access to news and health information is critical in a crisis like COVID-19.

By Shelmith Theuri, Power Africa Off-grid Project

Collins Seth Ayieko, who lives with his family in Kisumu, in western Kenya, recently acquired a solar home system (SHS) with a television (TV) set.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, like many other Kenyans, Ayieko got his news and health guidance second-hand: from neighbors, at markets, through his children’s school, and at community gatherings.

“I am relieved to now have access to information to keep my family healthy,” Collins Seth Ayieko, Kisumu, Kenya

John Odundo, Business Development Manager for Mwezi Solar (right), with Collins Seth Ayieko and family in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo Credit: Mwezi Solar

With COVID-related restrictions significantly limiting social interaction, many people — especially those in households without access to electricity — are now cut off from current affairs and other important information such as health alerts.

COVID-19 is driving changes in consumer behavior in many industries, including the off-grid solar sector.

Since March 2020, sales agents from off-grid solar companies like Mwezi Solar and Azuri Technologies, a Power Africa partner, have reported an uptick in interest in pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) SHS kits that include a TV and/or radio. PAYGO enables customers to gradually pay for SHS units via monthly installments, making electricity more accessible to lower-income households.

According to a survey conducted by the global research firm 60 Decibels, demand for off-grid energy products and services in Kenya has remained stable or increased since the start of the pandemic, primarily due to people spending more time at home.

“Customers want to stay informed and therefore these systems are selling more,” said Collinse Kwach, a sales coordinator for Mwezi Solar.

While it is difficult to anticipate how long this bump in demand will last, interviews with customers indicate that the need for information is driving their recent purchase decisions.

Mwezi Solar’s John Odundo with George Ouma Omolo and family in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo Credit: Mwezi Solar

Real-time access to news, educational information, and entertainment

In times of crisis, there is high demand for timely and credible information.

“Television is our main source [of information] about restrictions and government interventions related to coronavirus,” said Aiyeko. “The children also use the TV for schoolwork.”

A report by the Efficiency for Access Coalition and 60 Decibels highlights the importance of solar TV as a source of information and entertainment in East Africa, especially given that about a quarter of Kenyans still lack access to electricity.

In interviews with customers, around 90 percent reported their understanding of current events, politics, and general knowledge improved as a result of owning a television. Seventy-nine percent of customers reported reduced stress levels, while 83 percent stated their family was more connected.

“This upsurge in the number of customers buying TV sets is mainly because movement restrictions require people to be at home, making television a necessity for entertainment and learning,” said Christopher Aringo, a sales coordinator for Mwezi Solar.

Families are increasingly using solar powered TVs and radios to access entertainment, as well as health guidance and educational information. Several government-led and private sector initiatives are leveraging solar TVs and radios for education and public health awareness. Below are a few examples from Kenya:

Supporting “out-of-classroom” learning

EDU TV, managed by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), primarily broadcasts educational content with close adherence to Kenya’s national educational curriculum. The institute introduced an “out-of-classroom” platform, enabling primary and secondary school learners to access educational content (in Kiswahili and English) via free-to-air and subscription TV, as well as YouTube and radio.

Equity Group Foundation (EGF) and the Mastercard Foundation partnered to support over 14,600 learners in the “Wings to Fly” and Elimu scholarship programs to access education at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. Of these learners, those in secondary school each received a solar powered device to access lessons aired on national radio.

“We wanted the scholars to have an equal opportunity through continued access to their class lessons during this difficult stay-at-home period. With many of them coming from financially challenged backgrounds, access to a radio for purposes of following the classroom lessons was going to be a big challenge. Additionally, with the majority of the scholars not having access to electricity, we opted for solar-powered gadgets. We believe that the scholars are now well-equipped to keep up to date with their lessons,” said Dr. James Mwangi, Managing Director and CEO of Equity Group Holdings, and Executive Chairman of EGF.

Public health awareness

The Kenyan government is employing various communication channels, including radio and TV, to provide regular updates on COVID-19 infection rates and control measures. The importance of having direct and timely access to credible and authoritative information in the current situation is driving the demand for household access to TV and radio.

Kenya’s recent National Communication and Community Engagement Strategy for Coronavirus, developed with the support of USAID, calls for increased usage of TV and radio to disseminate accurate information about the disease, especially in Kiswahili and other local dialects. Due to the limited reach of the national electricity grid, solar energy is key in expanding access to media devices.

“I get any information I need on the radio. I enjoy listening to the radio in the evenings as it keeps me up-to-date with what is going on in our community,” says Mildred Awuor, a teacher living in Kendu Bay, Kisumu. Awuor recently purchased an SHS lighting system with a rechargeable radio from Azuri Technologies.

As the ”Powering Opportunity” report published by GOGLA in May 2020 indicates, access to off-grid solar not only provides light, it improves lives and strengthens communities. Electricity powers products, such as radios and TVs, that provide lifesaving health information and access to educational programs for children.

Power Africa provides technical assistance and access to finance to over 250 off-grid companies, like Mwezi Solar and Azuri Technologies, aimed at increasing the sale of SHS and associated off-grid appliances.

As a member of the Efficiency for Access Coalition, Power Africa has co-sponsored successful prize competitions to drive down costs and increase the efficiency of off-grid appliances, including the Global LEAP prize competitions for televisions hosted by CLASP.

Energy access is important now more than ever to power essential services and provide information that supports pandemic response and recovery efforts and strengthens the resilience of families and communities. By helping companies to increase their sales of solar home systems and life-changing appliances, Power Africa hopes to turn more lights on and help communities living off the grid access the information they need to successfully navigate a changing world.

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