15 August 2012
Solar power hasn’t lifted much of the burden of poverty in developing countries, although it still could. Twelve years ago watchers like the World Bank and World Health Organization were blaming the slow uptake of solar on in-country “regulations and policies.” Governments weren’t moving quickly enough.
Since then hundreds of for-and-not-for profit organizations have decided to get around the problem by creating and distributing directly to consumers small-scale solar panels and lights that replace traditional fuels. Results have been better, although it’s a tough task to convince two-three billion people to switch from indoor biofuels, even when it’s equal to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
This is where Firdaus Kharas steps in. “The (health and environmental) issue is well-known. The technology is excellent, and it’s a viable consumer alternative. The problem is that the industry is fragmented and completely open (so) people in the villages have no idea about the advantages and disadvantages (of solar).”
Kharas just returned from three weeks in rural Kenya and India gathering research for what he does best: creating public-service-announcements (PSA) that change behaviour. His newest project aims to convince those without electricity - or with sporadic access, think India’s two July blackouts - of the value of using solar-powered bulbs (unit cost: $10-$15) instead of kerosene (cost: $2-$4 a month), wood or even animal dung to light their homes at night.
He helped change behaviour with The Three Amigos animated-condom campaign (for which he won a Peabody Award) and will now use new characters Sunny and Stubborn to explain solar’s benefits of safety, health, cost and productivity as well as its increasingly vital ability to recharge cell phones (more than half of people in the developing world use them).
The campaign will include a dozen 30-second spots in 15 languages (eventually rising to 73). These will be available free of charge to television broadcasters (audio versions to radio) and will also be adapted for mobile platforms including smart phones and regular cell phones. The first spot will be introduced at the Global Social Benefit Incubator in late August with the full campaign rolling out early next year.
As with all Kharas’ PSA projects, it will be company-agnostic because changing behaviour requires industry-wide collaboration, especially if solar is to overcome the lack of trust from unreliable solar products ($1-$2) that China flooded the market with a few years ago.
He says behaviour change is about creating perceived value. In the developing world the bottom line is economics; long-term health issues tend to be a luxury, not a priority. Environmental issues are not even on the radar.
Those in the industry insist profit is not a major motivator; change is. But a business model that distills value with familiarity and trust is the Holy Grail when about half of humanity are potential customers. For the past few years companies have been experimenting with this form of behavioural economics.
Eight19’s IndiGo uses a pay-as-you-go system in several African countries; Nokero started a rent-to-own project in Haiti where consumers pay 12 cents a night for a solar bulb and then own the unit after four months: $10 for the light; $5 to the local entrepreneurial community group that coordinates the rentals.
“We absolutely need to scale up the industry for real change, which would need to involve a practitioner network like at the U.N. Foundation,” says Steve Katsaros, Nokero’s CEO, who provided seed money for Kharas’s PSAs.
Other companies are trying other models. Like the explosion of cell phones within the developing world, solar lights will inevitably create a value proposition for those without access to electricity. The only a question is how, and when, their behaviour will change.
Written by Mike Levin, a freelance writer who focuses on environmental issues and on creative people who fall below the cultural radar.