Let’s Get Real: Energy Access is Leaving Everyone Behind
Editor’s note: This post is part of the NextBillion Series “New Frontiers in Renewable Energy” that explores the dynamic changes reshaping the sector. Learn more about NextBillion’s other 2019 series here.
A provocative title, I know.
That said, the energy buzz phrases at the moment include “leaving no one behind” or “prioritising those hardest to reach.” We’re all talking in this way, and using the Sustainable Development Goals to inspire change. And this is undoubtedly a good thing.
But are we really “leaving no one behind?” Are we prioritising reaching those who are hardest to reach? We talk about it a lot. And no doubt, a lot of progress is being made with new businesses, products and services entering the market.
Growth of Markets ≠ Growth of Inclusion
Indeed, we set up SunnyMoney, which has now sold over 2 million solar lights and impacted an estimated 11 million people, precisely because we believed that market-based solutions were a key way to scale and increase access to basic lighting and power across sub-saharan Africa.
The fact that there are now hundreds of companies making and distributing energy solutions across the continent, with the Global Off Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA) estimating that, “as of December 2018, 108 million people are currently living in a household with improved energy access through off-grid solar lighting products” is strong proof that this was and is a well-founded belief.
But with the clock ticking, we have met precious few people who think the world is on track to achieve SDG7, let alone many of the other SDGs for which energy access is so important. So shouldn’t we also be asking a pair of questions?
- Are the current market-based solutions on offer the only answer to leaving no one behind?
- And despite encouraging, ongoing progress, are we on track to reach everyone?
Why, for example, are we seeing donor agencies supporting the growth of new markets, if we know that markets do not prioritise reaching the poorest? That’s not generally how markets work. For example, some donors are designing programmes that are incentivising the growth of the aspirational (or higher-cost) solar home system (SHS) market, while not doing the same for lower-cost, single light solutions.
This means that donors could be at risk of supporting the growth of a market, while not necessarily supporting energy access for the poorest. Our experience tells us that many households struggle to buy even a $5 entry level solar light, let alone the many SHS now available, which are simply too expensive for low-income households – even when offered on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis.
Meanwhile, some of the leading PAYG companies that retail SHS – which as a group have received over $500 million of investment and catalytic grants – have been hitting hard times as they compete for customers in a “maturing” market. Hopefully, this is the market maturing and marking the next stage in scaling up. But what does seem clear is that despite the impressive growth of the PAYG sector, most of the solutions on offer are well out of reach of the poorest households. There is a disconnect here and it needs to be addressed. Is reaching the very poorest at the top of investor and shareholder agendas as they review performance? Indeed, should it be?
Energy Access for All
At SolarAid, it’s at the top of our agenda: How can we leave no one behind?
Within the world of “pico-solar” and “plug-and-play” solar home system kits, what does this mean – what exactly are we trying to achieve? What, exactly, is the problem and how are we measuring success?
SolarAid equates access to clean, renewable solar light and power with access to opportunity. We see it as a problem when a household, a clinic or a school is still using candles, kerosene or poor quality battery powered torches as a means to stave off the darkness.
We do believe that access to even a simple solar light improves this basic situation. For us, that’s a crucial first step. Yet many people are still not taking this first step. For example, in April, we conducted research in rural Malawi showing that almost 60% of respondents still use candles as a main source of lighting, rather than solar solutions widely available in the marketplace.
We need to collectively recognise that there is a need for practical solutions that prioritise and include the poorest households and communities. SolarAid has been busy trialing models that actively attempt to do this. We have, for example, established Solar Light Libraries in schools, which enable students and households to access solar lighting, removing the necessity of private ownership. As with a normal library, where you do not need to own a book to be able to read it, you do not need to own the solar light to use it.
It would be a tragedy if the next Einstein out there were held back because his family could not afford for him to study at night. It reminds me of William Kamkwamba, who as a teenager harnessed the wind in Malawi, showing remarkable determination to bring lighting and power to his rural community: All the Williams in the world – or dare I say it, all the smart, well-funded, entrepreneurs selling solar in the world – are going to struggle to reach the poorest at the current rate.
This means that, instead of business as usual, a lot more focus and financial resources will have to be placed on:
- Subsidies that de-risk investors and prioritise minimum levels of basic energy access for the poorest households.
- Inclusive innovation – the development of creative solutions, products and business models that enable everyone, the poorest included, to benefit from access to basic lighting and power.
- A smarter way to measure not just sales, but success in prioritising and reaching the poorest, hardest to reach people.
If we are to enable everyone to access basic light and power, we need to up our game. The world needs to put serious money where its mouth is, and take more pressing, innovative action. This is what SDG7 is demanding of us: Business as usual does not seem to be cutting it. And when it comes to the poorest sectors of society, we are at risk of leaving everyone behind.
John Keane is CEO of SolarAid and SunnyMoney.
Photo courtesy of the author.