From the Bottom of the Pyramid to the Top

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.

Rachel

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Wining and Dining with African Royalty

Greetings from warm, sunny and vibrant Cameroon! After a very busy week in rural Fotouni (who said that the pace of life in Africa is slow?) and relaxing weekend on the coast in Limbe. We are back to city life and small luxuries of properly flushing toilets, more dependable electricity and the comforts of staying with a family in the bustling political capital of Yaounde.

Although two of us have explored parts of the African continent before this trip, there is still a first time for everything. Our journey started with its share of adventures before even leaving the European continent. Navigating the relatively efficient Dutch and Belgian train system with two backpacks each, two tightly wrapped and very bulky packages containing the docking station, and a box full of tools and treats is no easy feat. By the end of our two transfers and one missed train we became quite efficient at loading and unloading our luggage on and off the train. Thankfully, with a short explanation and smile no one at Royal Air Maroc questioned our mysterious luggage or the fact that it was overweight and soon we arrived in Morocco to be reunited with Jacob after his semester in Turkey.

Perhaps unlike Europe, having the right connections makes all the difference. Our color deficient skin (well, three of us at least) coupled with our unique luggage made for a bit of questioning during the disorganized immigration process. But upon receipt of the name and phone number of our contact in Douala, all was resolved. The immigration official apparently had our contact’s phone number even saved in his contact list. A few packed car rides later and we were on our way to Fotouni through the colorful and red dusted landscape of Cameroon.

Although meeting African kings was probably not on any of our bucket lists, we can all add wining and dining with kings and queens to our list of life experiences. Our self-proclaimed guide/cook/African prince rushed us around the beautiful hilly and green Fotouni surroundings. After trekking (or at some moments practically running) approximately twenty kilometers up and down steep hills to the surrounding villages, we successfully interviewed five kings, enjoyed a glass of whiskey with a queen, questioned potential lamp users, visited classrooms, were blessed by the local priest, and visited community savings groups and micro-finance institutions.

Due to the rest of the team’s French inexperience, Marc had the constant burden of speaking French while Jacob provided encouragement through nods and the occasional question. Kwabena and Rachel blankly sat by trying to grasp a word or two and perform secretarial duties like handing over pens and stroopwaffel to guarantee our acceptance. Even though the Dutch supposedly boast about being progressive about gender equality, much to Rachel’s displeasure, the boys encouraged Rachel’s (with Jacob’s assistance) cooking efforts and obsession over keeping the kitchen clean during our stay in Fotouni.

Our extremely productive rural visit made a relaxing weekend on the coast necessary before heading back to the hustle and bustle of city life in Yaounde and meetings with important officials and NGOs. The melanin scarce of our team enjoyed the sunshine, while we all appreciated the opportunity to chill by the pool and beach.

The common theme of the trip has been the overwhelming hospitality by our hosts. Graciously inviting us into their homes, our Cameroonian hosts have fed us (perhaps too well), housed us, and graced us with intellectually stimulating conversation. Since our internet access has been spotty (and some of us are attempting to avoid connection with the outside world) posts for our remaining days may be minimal. Back to summarizing interviews and planning for our meeting with the Ministry of Energy and Water tomorrow!

Rachel

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What are we doing?

For most of us, flicking on a light switch is an action we don’t think twice about. Our study and leisure schedules are not dictated by daylight hours or the availability of electricity. Unfortunately, for most of the developing world and specifically sub-Saharan Africa, access to electricity is somewhat of a luxury. For nearly 50% of Cameroon’s population electricity is unavailable. Instead, the primary light source for most Cameroonians is a kerosene lamp. Kerosene is not only harmful to the environment and human health, but also presents a significant financial and time burden due to its cost and the need to frequently replace the kerosene. Because grid extension or creation is often logistically and financially unfeasible for most African nations, there is a huge demand for affordable and environmentally sound lighting solutions. The docking station prototype being developed by our team for the company Ndassie Engineering is one promising alternative to the deficiencies in Cameroon’s electricity infrastructure.

What? 

Expanding on the work of previous TU Delft students we have designed an improved docking station that will be leased to Cameroonian shop owners. The docking station can hold LED lamps that will be sold to households. Instead of visiting a shop to purchase kerosene, lamp owners can bring their LED lamps to the shop, place them on one of the docking station shelves and charge their lamps through solar power. This design seeks to maintain the current model and community aspect of visiting a shop while providing a safer and more affordable alternative.

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Where? 

Cameroon is a coastal West African country, bordering six countries: Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo (not the DRC) and Equatorial Guinea. The official languages are French and English, with French being the most widely spoken language.

How? 

Team SOLEIL will travel to Cameroon during the first two weeks of February. We will travel from Brussels to Douala (the industrial port of Cameroon). The first part of our trip will be spent in the small village of Fotouni where a previously designed docking station is installed. We will collect information on how the existing station is operating from the shopowner and current lamp users. The updated prototype and user manual will be tested to evaluate how the functionality has improved and where there might still be areas for improvement. Most importantly, our team will travel to nearby villages to assess how Ndassie’s products might be successful in different regions of Cameroon. The trip will end with time in Yaounde to visit micro-finance institutions, community savings and loans associations, and NGOs who could potentially serve as partners and distributors.

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-Rachel

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Market Research

The last months I have done some market research to off-grid lighting systems in Africa and Cameroon. When we are in Cameroon we can further develop this. Some interesting conclusions of the research so far:

– Less than half of the population in Cameroon is connected to the grid

– The market penetration of off-grid lighting systems in Africa is 4%

So there seems to be enough people who must be interested in our system. But also:

– The number of off-grid lighting systems has increaseds from 20 to 80 in the past 4 years

– Customer awareness remains one of the biggest identified problems for producers and distributors

This shows that having a good design is not enough.

 

Jacob

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Welcome

For the past year a group of TU Delft students have been working on a prototype for an off grid solar LED lamp charging system. Our backgrounds range from Mechanical Engineering, Policy Analysis, and Political Science. We will be traveling to Cameroon in the beginning of February to install our system, conduct a needs assessment, and research the functionality of systems previously installed in Cameroon. This blog is a space to provide project updates, and general information about off grid lighting issues worldwide.

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