In 2018, Aleid Groenewoudt spent three months in Uganda, an equatorial country west of Kenya. There, she saw street vendors dealing in individual solar panels and batteries, solar home systems being repaired poorly with makeshift parts, and batteries ending up on waste piles in gardens. “Donors, among others, often tell great stories about the promise of solar power in developing countries. But in reality, it’s not that simple. Many systems break down quickly and as a result, they fail to do what they were designed for: to provide clean energy. And what we end up with is a waste problem.”
Modern solar technology offers people who have no access to the electricity grid the possibility of charging a cell phone, for example, or keeping an electric lamp on at night – which is no mere luxury in a country where the sun sets around six in the evening all year round. Other than the systems provided by large suppliers – often with Western support – the “solar market” in Africa consists, for the most part, of small local entrepreneurs, Groenewoudt says. “They supply cheaper products, though they’re not always of good quality. Some of them even sell fake batteries that hardly work. A lot of the time you simply don’t know exactly what you’re buying. I saw solar panels in Uganda with ‘Made in Germany’ printed on the front and ‘Made in China’ on the back. I also noticed that, in general, the more expensive products do work a little better, but even those do not always function properly.”
And we are not talking about the rows of meter-sized panels you see on Dutch rooftops, Groenewoudt emphasizes. “They’re more like solar lanterns, those portable solar-powered lamps we bring with us when we go camping. Additionally, there are small panels of ten to twenty peak watts, connected to a battery.” (See for illustration some photos below which were taken by the PhD student during her field research in Uganda. The main photo above shows a solar lamp she bought in Uganda).
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The current state of affairs in the Ugandan solar market leads to what the Dutch view as unusual situations. “I’ve seen traders opening batteries on the street and refilling them with battery acid. That wasn’t exactly done in a safe way.” Her experiences raise the question of how sustainable the introduction of sustainable technology is in practice. And that is exactly what Groenewoudt explored in her doctoral research in the Technology, Innovation, and Society group of the IE&IS Department. “That relatively non-transparent bottom end of the market had never really been properly outlined before.”
Therefore, the PhD student interviewed more than a hundred local consumers and entrepreneurs in Uganda, and representatives of governments, development organizations and larger commercial parties. She already had a few contacts in Uganda from the research group, Groenewoudt says. She managed to set up the rest herself. “My boyfriend happened to know a woman who taught in Uganda through his swimming club. It was via her that I ended up in a B&B in Kampala, where I met someone who organized bicycle tours. There, I met with employees of several international solar companies, which led to a whole bunch of new contacts.”
The local entrepreneurs were not hard to find. “They conduct their business on the street. But not all of them speak English, so I brought an interpreter with me for those interviews. In addition, my cab driver Elisha, who had studied at the local university, was of great help to me.” This field research led to her first publication, ‘From fake solar to full service’, which forms the empirical basis for her dissertation.
Groenewoudt emphasizes that the informal, local trade in products of uncertain origin definitely serves an important purpose. “Those devices are so much cheaper that they are actually affordable for many people, if only just barely. And they’re also available in extremely remote areas. Another advantage of informal products is that they’re usually made up of separate components, which can be repaired or replaced separately and locally. This is often not possible for high-end products.”
Both systems, the formal supply of – subsidized – quality products by large corporations, and the informal mishmash offered through street vendors, complement each other in Africa. In her dissertation, Groenewoudt concludes that aid organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, which are now completely focused on the formal system as a route to sustainable development, should pay more attention to the role of the local, informal economy. According to her, this is necessary to counter unwanted effects such as environmental pollution and increasing inequality. “If you really want to make progress, you should combine the advantages of both systems. I’m certain of that.”