Tag Archives: fee-for-service

Solar Cooking and Energy Service Companies: An Unexplored Market Opportunity?

Solar cooking, as a technology and group of products, has existed for many decades, with examples being used in the 1970s. The technology in its simplest form has remained relatively unchanged since then, with the basic premise being either a flat or parabolic reflecting surface, placed in the sun, reflecting sunlight onto a cooking chamber. This can be either below the flat-plate reflector, or at the focal point of the parabolic collector. These types of devices are easy to manufacture and can be extremely cost-effective, with little more than a reflecting surface (for example, foil-backed card) and a cooking vessel needed for a minimum setup. These features give this technology particular applicability for targeting bottom-of-pyramid consumers with sustainability interventions: typical prices for simple designs (such as the flat-plate reflector shown below) range from US$3-5.

Solar box cooker made from carboard boxes and aluminium foil. Image: https://nakazora.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/solar-cooker1.jpg

Parabolic solar cooker in use at an informal settlement in Barcelona. Image: Brinerustle / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0


A number of companies currently distribute simple kits for creating solar cookers from scratch, usually in the form of a reflective card template for the reflecting surface. However, these pre-packed kits are often more expensive than locally-sourcing materials for manufacture, ranging up to US$30-40, without offering meaningful benefits to the consumer aside from convenience. There are also a number of companies in developing countries that distribute full solar cookers to consumers using a direct-purchase business model, such as SunFire in South Africa and L’Obel Solar Power in India. Prices for these designs, commonly higher-quality parabolic mirror cookers, range up to US$200.

As such, it appears there is an opportunity for low-cost solar cooking business to develop markets for cheap, reliable solar cookers for bottom-of-pyramid consumers. In addition, through using alternative payment models for business, higher-cost designs can become more accessible to a greater number of consumers. Offering micro-credit products for deferred purchasing of solar cookers, or engaging with consumers on a fee-for-service basis with consumers paying a monthly fee for their product, would allow mid-range technologies to become accessible to consumers with lower incomes.

Other opportunities exist in the solar cooking market space for complimentary technologies, in particular heat-retention bags such as the Wonderbag from South Africa. This is designed to fit around the cooking vessel to retain heat and slow-cook the contents, after it has already been heated, reducing the overall energy requirement for cooking. Whilst this technology is perhaps most applicable to wood or charcoal-fired stoves, it can also help improve convenience when using solar cooking products. For example, rather than leaving a cooking vessel in the solar cooker for up to six hours, it can be left there for 1.5-2 hours, then transferred to the Wonderbag for further cooking.

For more information on the Wonderbag and use-case studies, please refer to https://samsetproject.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/energy-poverty-in-peri-urban-communities-in-polokwane-south-africa-part-1-identifying-the-issues/

— Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute


Teach A Man To Fish (2009) Solar Cooker Business Guide. Available at: http://www.teachamantofish.org.uk/resources/incomegeneration/Solar-Cooker-Business-Guide.pdf

Gautam (2011) Microfinance Intervention for Financing Solar Cooking Technologies – Financing With Savings. Available at: http://www.microfinancegateway.org/sites/default/files/mfg-en-paper-microfinance-intervention-for-financing-solar-cooking-technologies-financing-with-savings-mar-2011.pdf

Solar Cookers International: CooKit. https://shop.solarcookers.org/?pn=CooKit&cn=Solar+Cookers&p=621&c=27

L’Obel Solar Power Systems: Solar Thermal Products: http://www.lobelpower.com/solar_thermal_product.htm

SunFire Solutions: http://www.sunfire.co.za/wp/

Wonderbag World: http://www.wonderbagworld.com/


What Business Model is Best for LPG Dissemination?

In the previous two posts of this series on LPG in developing countries, we have examined the concepts of fuel-switching to LPG from other, less sustainable fuels, and some ways of promoting LPG access in developing countries through government interventions. However, the development of LPG markets with private and public-private participants in developing countries has been slow, and few interventions attempted by governments and third-sector actors have had success in developing these markets.

Developing a private market for LPG in developing countries requires the existence of business models that are relevant to the technology and fuel source, as well as adaptable to changing consumer and market conditions.

Is fee for service a good model for LPG?

Fee-for-service business models, where consumers pay a monthly fee to an energy service company for their energy services, whilst the company maintains ownership of the system and maintenance/operations responsibility, have been used to great effect in other renewable technology sectors in allowing users to access energy services at a significantly reduced up-front cost, removing one of the primary barriers to business success and market development for renewable technologies.

Applying a fee-for-service business model to LPG equipment and fuels could help to promote the development of an LPG services business in developing countries. The high up-front cost of converting from other fuels to LPG can be mitigated through a monthly payments scheme, allowing the user to access the technology where otherwise they could not. This can be applied to LPG fuels as well as LPG-utilising equipment, such as water heaters or cooking equipment. However, there are disadvantages to the fee-for-service approach as a transaction model for LPG also. Equipment costs for LPG are generally low, particularly for cooking use, with the majority of the cost coming in fuels. Fuel costs are generally very high compared to other renewable thermal technologies. As such, direct purchasing of LPG equipment is within reach of a large proportion of consumers, mitigating the usefulness of a fee-for-service approach to spread out high equipment costs. Applying a fee-for-service transaction model is an approach that has been tested in rare cases: LPG fuel financing is used by some companies, for example VidaGas in Mozambique, where users can pay off cylinder purchases over a period of 2-3 months.

LPG business model table

Appropriateness of the most common thermal energy fuel types for common renewable energy business transaction models. Source: Robert Aitken, 2016. [1]

Other models for LPG dissemination

Some countries, for example Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria, have started implementing a cylinder exchange model for LPG fuels, as opposed to previous models where cylinders were bought as a unit for a much higher price. These cylinder exchange models have been used in the domestic LPG sector in Europe for many years, and involve exchanging empty cylinders at central locations for full cylinders, with the user only paying for the fuel in the new cylinder. This involves the energy service company retaining ownership of the cylinders in circulation, allowing the user to access fuel at a lower cost.

kenya lpg cylinders

A vendor inspects cooking gas cylinders at a cylinder exchange site in Kenya. Source: http://empoweredweb.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/opportunities-in-gas-business.html

Whilst this model benefits the users greatly, from a company perspective it is challenging, requiring a large up-front investment in terms of cylinders and filling equipment for LPG, as well as bulk purchases of the fuel itself, and the need for safe and secure storage of the fuel. However, with policies to promote business development in place, for example start-up grants or low-interest credit underwritten by governments/NGOs, this model has the potential to greatly increase access to LPG in developing countries.

– Xavier Lemaire and Daniel Kerr, UCL, February 2016

[1] Aitken  Robert (2016), Technology and Business models for thermal energy services, STEPs toolkit, Under print.

Nuon-RAPS (NuRa) Utility Field Visit – 30th October 2014

The STEPs team, following the meeting component of the network meeting, used the 30th October as an opportunity to visit premises belonging to the Nuon-RAPS (NuRa) utility. NuRa is one of three concessionaires currently operating in KwaZulu-Natal province, providing both solar home systems and LPG to customers. The solar home systems are provided on a fee-for-service basis, with customers visiting an energy store on a monthly basis to top up their system credit, via an electronic key. LPG is provided to customers on a direct purchase basis. NuRa had 19,005 SHS customers as of September 2013, with a net customer growth of ~1,000 per year. LPG is supplied to the company on a 30-day credit by Totalgaz, and the company also offers direct sales of ethanol gel, having also previously experimented with improved cookstove provision.

NuRa Mkuze main energy store

The NuRa main energy store at Mkuze – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

The STEPs project team visited two energy stores in the course of the day; the main energy store (and the centre of operations) at Mkuze, and a smaller energy store in Jozini. In Mkuze the team viewed the main operations of the organisation, from the process of credit top-up and LPG sale, to the equipment for the SHS, to the maintenance and repair division. In addition to this, the team observed the training procedure for new technicians on-site in Mkuze.

Topping-up credit for the SHS is done via an electronic token (magnetic key) which the customer brings to the energy store to add credit to. Maintenance teams also have a version of this token which collects operational data from the system at point of maintenance, for assessment by the company. Installations take place via car and motorcycle, and the company maintains its own fleet of vehicles. Technician training is also done on-site, with several demonstration rigs at the Mkuze store for this purpose.

The company also operates LPG bottle top-up facilities at each energy store, where customers bring empty bottles to be refilled, or purchase a new system in the case of the Shesha stoves.

NuRa training site

Technician training at the Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

NuRa test components

Testing components at the Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

NuRa bike maintenance

Motorcycle fleet maintenance at the on-site workshop – Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

In Jozini, the team visited one of the rural energy stores servicing more dispersed communities further North in KwaZulu-Natal. There they observed operations at the energy store, and also took the opportunity to have conversations with customers of the store, asking about the scale of their energy use and energy costs, as well as desires for future service (refrigeration, television). Of particular interest was the point that customers still used traditional woodfuels in addition to their LPG service, the primary driver behind this being the free availability of woodfuel to low-income consumers.

STEPs Team at the Jozini Energy Store

The STEPs team at the Jozini energy store – NuRA field visit 30th October 2014 – Image: Daniel Kerr

NuRa Jozini energy store

The Jozini energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire


The Shesha gas cooker, offered by NuRa to customers, an integrated 5kg LPG bottle and single hob. NuRA field visit by STEPs 30th October 2014 – Image: Daniel Kerr

The NuRa utility offers a number of useful lessons for the STEPs project. First and foremost, that it is possible to run a successful utility targeting bottom-of-pyramid consumers on a fee-for-service basis, integrating electricity and thermal energy services. The integration of product sale, installation, maintenance and service into one site and under one company (the energy store and NuRa itself) provides resilience for the business and enables the free exchange of information, as well as increasing customer satisfaction through regular maintenance from a trusted source. Finally, the on-site training of technicians through energy stores gives the utility a strength in capacity, and prevents the need for outsourcing to other technicians, reducing costs.

– Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

Second STEPs Network Meeting – KwaMbonambi, South Africa, 28-30 October 2014

The second STEPs network meeting was held in KwaMbonambi, South Africa from the 28th – 30th October 2014. The purpose of the meeting was to address the current status of the project and determine next steps, as well as take the opportunity to both meet local representatives from South African electricity and thermal off-grid concessionaires, and visit the operations of local concessionaires for fieldwork, which will be described in a later post on this blog.

The first day of the meeting saw a great deal of discussion among project partners as to the way forward for the STEPs project. Primary discussion focused around the construction of the STEPs model, focusing on five main aspects: institutional arrangements, business/enterprise models, financing, technology options, and policy/regulation. The project will look to test a number underlying assumptions for the sustainability of thermal energy service businesses, for example operating margins (in the 50-70% range), and the importance of using public sector clients as anchor consumers in a thermal energy business customer base.

Discussions were had on the most relevant technologies to target with STEPs. Key technologies are improved cookstoves, LPG for cooking/refrigeration, and household biogas installations, primarily for the successes seen in previous projects using these technologies. These include the Ghanaian experience in LPG stove dissemination via the government, and the vast scale of the Chinese domestic biomass gasifier program. However, challenges exist to the uptake of all these, including cultural contexts for cooking (meaning stove design needs to take social factors into account), as well as the difficulty in acquiring biomass feedstocks in some country contexts, for example Sub-Saharan/Southern Africa.

Discussion was also had about the most relevant financial and management models to target under the STEPs model, as well as which technologies these models applied best to. For example, outright/financed purchase models under a concession contract are most relevant for improved cookstoves, whereas fee-for-service and progressive purchase models are more relevant for LPG and biogas systems.


Binu Parthan presenting to the STEPs team – 2nd Steps meeting network – KwaMbonambi, South Africa – 28th – 30th October 2014.

The second day saw representatives from local utility concessions in KwaZulu-Natal attend the STEPs meeting. The concessions represented were KES, with their CEO Vicky Basson attending, active in the Durban and central KwaZulu-Natal region, and Nuon-RAPS (NuRa), with MD Sifiso Dlamini, active in Northern KwaZulu-Natal up to the Mozambican border. The KES utility was founded in 1997, and currently services over 28,000 customers with solar home systems on a fee-for-service basis in and around the Durban area. Tariffs are set at 96ZAR/month for a solar home system, with six lights (2 outdoor, 4 indoor), and a 9V and 12V DC connection point. The company has provided LPG services, both in LPG bottles and integrated stove systems (notably the Shesha stoves from Totalgaz). Their concession is granted via a bidding process by the KZN state government and local municipalities on a yearly basis.

Questions were answered by the concessionaires that added context to the construction and future work of STEPs. These included revisions of assumptions for sustainable operating margins, insight into the regulatory framework in South Africa for LPG financing, and particularly the barriers to the use of mobile money in South Africa, due to transaction regulations in the financial sector and a lack of culture for mobile payments. Subsidy positioning from the government was also identified as a key barrier in South Africa to thermal energy use, with subsidies moving between thermal energy sources frequently.

Both concession representatives stated a desire to expand their thermal energy services business, and stated the criticality of tailored solutions to national and local contexts for technologies, an aspect of the thermal energy market that is core to the development of the STEPs model.


Discussion between the STEPs team and Vicky Basson (KES, far left) and Sifiso Dlamini (NuRa), middle – 2nd Steps meeting network – KwaMbonambi, South Africa – 28th – 30th October 2014.

A number of conclusions were drawn from the meeting. Given the ongoing political difficulties in Lesotho, a reorientation of project objectives was proposed to take into account the changing landscape in which the project operates. Current goals are to construct the STEPs model as a resource across all sectors, being relevant to governments and policy-makers, as well as the private sector and SMEs/entrepreneurs wishing to enter the thermal energy services market.

– Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute