How the Rural Poor Are Becoming a Market for Solar Power

d.light s300 photod.light solar/Video screen capture

I've written before about how solar is a life saver in poor rural communities. Contrary to popular misconceptions in richer nations, however, this is not simply about charity.

The rural poor in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world are a rapidly emerging market for clean energy technologies.

This fact is reflected in micro-enterprise focused solar initiatives like Sunny Money, where instead of simply throwing money and technological assistance at communities, as might have been the model twenty years ago, charities are instead funding and incubating small local businesses that sell solar solutions to rural communities at affordable rates.

But it's not just micro-entrepreneurs who are benefitting. Several for-profit enterprises are realizing the potential of emerging markets for clean energy -- developing products specifically designed for use by consumers in these communities. For example,d.light solar, is a for-profit social enterprise selling solar lamps and charging solutions to consumers without access to reliable power:

We design, manufacture and distribute solar light and power products throughout the developing world. We aim to transform the lives of at least 100 million people by 2020. d.light serves over 40 countries, through over 6,000 retail outlets, 10 field offices, and four regional hubs. The company employs over 200 people directly, and indirectly employs hundreds more worldwide.

The company's products, which range from a basic solar LED task light (the S2) to a larger lantern and phone charging device (the S300), recently underwent a thorough revamp including improved solar panels, and longer-lasting LEDs and batteries:

Designed to last twice as long as their predecessors, the new product line has been enhanced with solar panels that charge more efficiently on cloudy days and LEDs that can last for decades. Battery replacements are no longer necessary for the lifetime of the products, allowing customers to use them for years without any maintenance. The premium S300 solar lantern and mobile charger can charge a fuller range of mobile phones, including the latest smartphones. Each solar lantern has also been designed to be more resistant to dust, impact, insects and water.

There will no doubt be purists who are concerned about businesses profiting off the rural poor. And there will be free-marketeers who celebrate the triumph of commerce over charity. But the fact is that this is yet another case of simply using the right tool for the right job. Non-profits do an excellent job of identifying and servicing people who are ignored by mainstream markets. Businesses do a great job of developing products once they know a market is there. When working together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

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