In a recent Power for All survey of leading decentralized renewable energy (DRE) companies (stay tuned for full results in March), marketing campaigns were pinpointed as “crucial for raising awareness about the benefits” of DRE—with the majority of respondents ranking them first in importance for effective market building programs. In line with both research on reaching base-of-the-pyramid consumers, and the clear upward trajectory of energy access following consumer awareness campaigns, the survey results inspired us to look more closely at the question: What makes a successful DRE awareness campaign? Luckily, there are some impressive examples.
“Above the line” engagement—aka advertising by radio, television, mobile and the internet—is a vital tool in the arsenal of any organization highlighting new products and services. In the DRE sector, initiatives such as CEED’s 100% Bihar have raised the profile of distributed solutions by gathering support from high-profile Bollywood stars (as well as “The Hulk” from Hollywood fame), while the multi-country Lighting Global education campaigns have led the way in awareness raising through engaging media content: from television adverts, to radio, billboards to comic books.
Yet in unelectrified regions, the lack of access to key information channels presents a complex challenge. Televisions might only be watched on rare occasions, and households may not have access to radio, or print media. “Below the line”—or direct ‘one-to-one’ outreach—has therefore become a vital feature of DRE demand-creation campaigns. From the extensive work of the Lighting Global teams, including direct outreach in over 9,000 villages in India, to targeted actions to engage women’s groups, faith leaders, and communities across Africa, word-of-mouth knowledge sharing has been instrumental in catalyzing market growth. And this success has provided important lessons for emerging markets. December saw Sierra Leone incorporate key elements of direct outreach into its new Energy Revolution program, with solar road-shows and fairs, and the education of young people via the country’s network of Ataya bases (tea shops).
Although awareness is a key to achieving clean energy access, so too is building trust. In low-income communities, investment in a solar light or home system, or commitment to sign up to a mini-grid, is a significant purchase decision. In the early stage of East Africa’s market growth, the importance of learning about the benefits of DRE through a respected source was a critical learning of the SolarAid in Tanzania. After-sales data showed unparalleled success when a community was told about solar by a teacher, so the organization began working closely with the education network to reach communities through local schools, leading to over 1.7 million solar light sales in three years, and over $300 million in savings for families living below the poverty line.
Similarly, endorsement of DRE products via trusted agricultural cooperatives, and local chieftains has rapidly accelerated the uptake of decentralized technologies. And in Rwanda, the imihigo tradition has taken DRE knowledge-sharing one step further. As well as providing a forum for discussion through the country’s indigenous knowledge-sharing system, imihigo (or “goal setting”) has led to individuals and families, as well as community leaders, committing to meeting energy-related development targets. Early research by UCL / BBOXX found that over 40 percent of solar home system users interviewed had energy targets in their households, with 50 percent reporting energy targets at the umudugudu (village) level.
Momentum on awareness is certainly rolling, and in more established markets it is already enabling even greater innovation, impact and opportunity. In Bangladesh, energy literacy through the IDCOL program has led innovative breakthroughs—such as the MESOLshare peer-to-peer solar utility model— awareness about solar lights in East Africa has primed the market for solar home system markets and mini-grids, and knowledge gathered from micro-hydro programs in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nepal is now being used to highlight its potential across South East Asia.
Yet with awareness also comes demand that must then be met. And while the importance of awareness should not be underestimated, neither should the need for joined up planning to avoid market spoilage and dashed expectations. In Tanzania, increased awareness and demand in 2014-5 led to an influx of low-quality solar lights faster than companies selling quality products were able to finance their extension into new regions; while in the mini-grid space, the hopes of villagers who have seen the benefits of mini-grid systems in neighboring settlements can be raised, only for them to find that there is no national planning for similar services to be provided to their homes and businesses.