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- Buyers' Guide
With more than 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa having no access to electricity, and in rural areas as much as 95 per cent, the Rural Energy Foundation (REF) has helped to facilitate access to solar-powered electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, by training and supporting rural retailers.
REF is a not-for-profit organisation based in the Netherlands, and has been running the SolarNow programme since 2007. It identifies retailers and distributors, trains them in solar energy technology, marketing, sales and business administration, and helps them start up and expand businesses selling solar energy products. They promote solar home systems (SHS) which are typically 11 to 50 Wp and solar lanterns which operate at 1-10 Wp.
To date, over 57,000 solar home systems and 36,000 solar lanterns have been sold. The cost of the system is typically paid back in one to three years through savings in kerosene and batteries. With kerosene alone, the saving is typically one litre per month per household and it is cutting CO2 emissions by approximately 12,000 tonnes/year in total.
An SHS consists of a PV module, which generates electricity from sunlight; a rechargeable battery, which stores electricity so that it can be used during both day and night; a charge controller, which prevents the battery from being over-charged or deep-discharged, lamps, wiring and fixtures. The SHS promoted by REF use PV modules from 11 to 50 Wp rating. Depending on size, systems can support other small electrical appliances like mobile phone chargers, radios, fans or black and white TVs.
A solar lantern has the lamp and battery combined in one portable unit. The 1 to 10 Wp PV module is sometimes incorporated in the unit, but is often detachable.
Generally speaking, an 11-20 Wp SHS should sell for about US$250-440 and a 21-50 Wp SHS for US$360-630. The solar lanterns sell for US$25-90, depending on size and quality. REF encourages retailers to learn about the market and understand what is affordable for their customers.
The customers pay the full price for the system, usually up front in cash. SHS are increasingly made to be easily expandable, so that users can start with a small system and increase the size when they can afford to. PV modules and charge controllers for the products sold by SolarNow retailers and importers are manufactured in China, USA and Europe. The systems are assembled and installed by trained local technicians. Batteries are often manufactured locally.
Selling PV systems has increased business for the 200 SolarNow retailers. It has also brought employment for about 200 local technicians, since on average each retailer employs one full-time technician to assemble and install systems. Selling and servicing SolarNow products gives retailers increased visibility, more security and a better chance of accessing lines of credit.
With millions still needing electricity, rural entrepreneurs are being encouraged to become SolarNow retailers, as REF intends to expand its operations throughout Africa. It is also increasing the range of PV products and also running pilot schemes with other renewable energy technologies, including pico hydro systems and efficient stoves.