UNCDF’s Clean Start Programme, in conjunction with SolarAid/Acumen and the Schatz Energy Research Centre (SERC), are currently conducting a research project in Uganda based on identifying whether innovative financing models, such as pay-as-you-go (PAYG), can enable higher levels of access to renewable energy technologies, as well as the “solar ladder hypothesis”. This hypothesis states that users who gain access to solar energy technologies will then continue to adopt higher levels of technology to further improve their energy access over time, continuing to use solar technology whilst doing so. Some sources reject the solar ladder hypothesis, and suggest that low-income households can “leapfrog” to higher levels of solar energy access directly if appropriate financing mechanisms are made available, and this project aims to investigate whether the hypothesis holds true in the face of innovative end-user financing for solar energy technologies.
This project exists under the purview of the UNCDF’s co-investment initiatives in innovative and novel financing mechanisms and business models for off-grid energy access. In Uganda, the organisation is particularly promoting energy service company models offering asset financing for users, using a digitally-enabled pay-as-you-go model through proven mobile money technologies. The technologies used in this project are well-proven, such as small portable solar lanterns, and small- and large-scale solar home systems. The substitution of solar energy for unsustainable fuels is demonstrated well by the research so far: 55% of respondents to the 600 phone interviews and 114 face-to-face interviews conducted by the project to date say they have completely substituted fuels such as kerosene and dry-cell batteries, as well as services such as paid mobile phone charging, with solar energy use.
Of particular interest to the research conducted under the STEPs project, however, is the demonstration that PAYG models offer significant benefits over traditional financing and purchasing models, such as cash-purchase or deferred-purchase. The PAYG model investigated under the Ugandan research has led to households with lower incomes being able to afford proportionally-larger systems: household incomes for purchasers of small-scale solar home systems under the PAYG model were comparable to those who were outright purchasing portable solar lanterns, with the model enabling a higher level of access.
Entrepreneur and solar home system purchasers in Uganda. Image: Goyal, Jacobsen & Gravesteijn (2017)
However, whilst the PAYG model enables users to access higher levels of service immediately, it does not have any effect on the payback period for the larger systems. Net-present-value analysis conducted under the project suggested that whilst solar lantern outright purchasers paid back their initial costs quickly, small- and large-scale solar home system users experienced a net cash outflow for the warranty period of their systems, in the region of $130-$740 per year depending on system size. This suggests that economic concerns are possibly lower on the priority list of users than previously thought in other projects, and that levels of service may be more important to users than initially suspected. The project conclusion on this point is that adopters of small- and large-scale solar home systems make the purchases to achieve quality-of-life improvements, rather than as an economic investment.
In addition, the research so far has suggested that the introduction of mobile money systems as a method for both payments for systems and savings for users has been equally adopted throughout household income scales. This suggests that potential co-benefits of a PAYG model when targeting poorer consumers, such as improving financial inclusion and money-saving access through the mobile payments scheme, may not be realised in actuality, given the equal adoption across household income levels. However, an encouraging sign is that mobile savings are being used by a very large proportion of the respondents to the research: 83%. In addition, new systems such as the MoKash savings option launched by mobile money pioneers MTN in Uganda recently may further increase this proportion.
Goyal, Jacobsen & Gravesteijn (2017) Spotlight: Does PAYGO unlock energy access and financial inclusion? Available at: https://spark.adobe.com/page/iGBgXjIQIGG9F/ [Accessed 11th March 2018]
UNCDF (2018) UNCDF CleanStart. Available at: http://www.uncdf.org/en/cleanstart [Accessed 11th March 2018]