Substandard solar products on market: Players need to step up

Monday August 6 2018

Substandard solar products market Players need step up

Mr Willette is the managing director, Fenix International Uganda Ltd. COURTESY PHOTO 

By Daniel Willette

Solar energy experts are acutely aware of the growing number of low-quality solar products on the market. The Uganda Solar Energy Association (USEA) highlighted this challenge and its consequences in the recent Daily Monitor story titled, ‘Four out of 10 solar systems substandard’.

This is an obstacle for the off-grid solar industry at large. More importantly, the distribution of substandard products negatively affects the customer the most - customers who want and deserve access to modern and reliable energy services, such as durable, high-quality solar systems.

To solve this issue, the solar industry, together with regulators, needs a system of checks and balances where high-quality products can be distinguished from the substandard products, and these items denied entry into the market.

Secondly, we need to work closely with our peers and government organisations to create a market space where consumers are aware of good quality products and are guaranteed such when they make the investment to access modern energy services.
This is important because solar energy providers not only need to ensure customers enjoy their experience with solar products, but also appreciate the importance of having high-quality hardware and service.

As energy experts, together with government partners and regulators such as Ministry of Energy & Mineral Development (MEMD), Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), Ministry of ICT, UNBS, Uganda Solar Energy Association (USEA), and others, we need to implement and enforce a code of conduct to ensure that consumers are guaranteed good quality products.

While there may be many other factors at play that explain the prevalence of substandard goods in the market, it is our role as energy experts to clean our house. We need to provide high-quality, affordable solar technology with an exceptional customer experience.

Despite strong demand for solar, 95 per cent of off-grid households in Uganda cannot afford the up-front cost of a system. But quality costs money, so a good solar system will cost much more. Because of the cost difference, a low-cost, but substandard product may be initially attractive to a customer looking to buy a solar solution.
To address the issue of upfront cost and make quality more affordable, innovative approaches using a unique combination of technology and financing have become a proven method.

For example, at Fenix, our customers can finance their ReadyPay solar systems with payments as small as 700 UGX per day, paid for completely via MTN Mobile Money. With such a model, we can match customers’ expenditure on energy, lighting, and charging while simultaneously providing a high quality, clean solar system.

Furthermore, if the government were to support the solar industry by removing applicable import duties and taxes, the sector could have room to reduce pricing for the end customer even lower, consequently making quality products more cost-competitive with substandard alternatives.

We should sensitise the customers to, among other quality checks, identify a warranty on any product purchased and clarify how and where the retailer provides support or service in the event the customer has a challenge.
Many of the substandard products in the market today come at a lower total cost, which may be attractive to a customer at first, but without a legitimate warranty and accessible service, when technical issues arise, the customer will face a poor experience and a costly replacement.

This is why it is our responsibility as an industry to ensure we provide good quality hardware with exceptional service, work closely with regulators and government partners to minimise substandard products on the market.
Mr Willette is the managing director, Fenix International Uganda Ltd.