We are now back in the land of bikes, stroopwaffels, tidy and organized streets lining canals, rows of compact houses, and cheese. It already feels like years since Cameroon but we are still sifting through all the information we gathered from the entire chain of stakeholders. From interviewing the end users in very rural areas (bottom of the pyramid market), Yaounde provided a different perspective on the off grid lighting market. We were fed overly well by our extremely hospitable host and his lovely wife and family. It felt a bit like we were staying in a five star hotel with the service we received.
Prior to the trip we researched NGOs and other institutions that could function as partners for Ndassie and provide us with more information on the electrification situation in Cameroon. Once we made a few connections it was surprisingly easy to be assertive and string together a plethora of useful contacts. Thanks to our helpful guide, we crammed into the trusty yellow Toyota taxis to mission around the city for meetings at government offices, NGOs and even bars. Ironically, our first connection was a Dutch consultant who gave a comprehensive picture of solar lighting in Cameroon and linked us up with two more useful contacts. After leaving the village, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about the demand of Ndassie’s individual solar lamps and slightly more skeptical about the potential for the central charging station. However, after meetings with the deputy director of renewables at the Ministry of Water and Energy and several NGOs (GIZ representatives, Light4All, SNV…) doing work on off grid lighting we had a different perspective. A week in Yaounde (and a bonus last day visit to Limbe) besides allowing us to enjoy live music at one of the city’s many cabarets, grilled fish, and the luxuries of coffee and ice cream, gave us additional information about off grid lighting and Cameroon:
- A key concern that came up in several interviews was market spoilage. With the increasing influx of solar lighting products and the current lack of awareness (also found during our interviews in Fotouni) of products, cheap and low quality products could spoil the market. Brand awareness was an important barrier and the people we interviewed were convinced that if people become aware of a product and see its quality, diffusion will be easy. Lighting Africa provides certifications for lighting products and many of the people we interviewed felt this certification was necessary.
- Connected to market spoilage was the issue of VAT and import taxes. Unlike East Africa where off grid lighting is booming, growth has been slower in Cameroon due to the extremely high taxes and duties that must be paid on lighting products imported. These costs are often up to 50% of the price of the product. However, there are currently discussions in government seeking to readjust these tariffs to make the importation of solar lighting products easier.
- There were mixed opinions about the central charging station business model. From a profit perspective this concept may be extremely difficult to be made profitable. But from a social perspective it might make more sense since it taps into the current model of traveling to a shop to purchase kerosene. It also provides opportunities for more people than simply selling an individual lamp. Finally, it has the potential to lower the cost of the lamp to the final user. Some barriers to making this concept work were the selection of motivated entrepreneurs to run the system, the appropriate rental fee structure for the end lamp user, and again awareness.
- Again unlike East Africa, Cameroon lacks coherent policy on renewables. Although it is a priority and there is even a fund for rural electrification. There are no defined targets regarding renewables or electricity penetration. Additionally, it seems that there is a lack of coordination between the many different projects and programs through the Ministry of Water and Energy.
- A common theme that emerged during interviews and casual conversations was the difference between francophone and anglophone Africa. Most people felt that France’s continued involvement in Cameroon has stunted the country’s development and resulted in corruption.
- There seems to be great potential to utilize micro-finance to help fund lighting products but micro-finance, mobile money, and banking in general does not seem to be as developed in Cameroon. Specifically, institutions seem to lack experience in funding energy products. See more on this in future posts.
Overall, our two short weeks were fruitful, informative and rewarding. Although we are enjoying the luxuries of properly flushing toilets, dependable showers, and coffee; Cameroon’s red dirt, sunshine, lively music, and friendly people will also be missed.