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FEATURE: Market forces not the main driver of solar technology uptake in Kenya


Despite the potential benefits of low carbon energy technologies for assisting climate compatible development, international climate policy has largely failed to incentivise the transfer and uptake of these technologies in low income countries.

In Kenya, however, more than 300,000 solar home systems (SHSs) were sold by 2012, and the off grid lighting market averaged growth of 75 – 85% per year. New CDKN-supported research has shed light on the factors leading to the successful uptake of SHSs in Kenya, yielding insights to inform policy making in this field.

Market forces alone have not driven the widespread uptake of solar technologies in Kenya argues researchers from the University of Sussex. Rather, the growth of the market was driven by a range of capacity building activities by key actors, sometimes with donor support, sometimes not. These capacity building activities reduced many of the risks that would have deterred private sector actors and put in place the key building blocks upon which a market could then thrive.

This establishes a powerful precedent for the central role that policy can play in fostering low carbon technology markets through a range of targeted capacity building interventions. The research suggests that policy should:

  • Build networks that link diverse stakeholders and support learning. Broad networks are critical for drawing on stakeholder knowledge of how developing markets can address emerging demand.
  • Conduct market and technological research and monitoring and make results publicly available. Public information reduces perceived risks amongst investors and technology users. It helps enhance understanding of user needs and preferences, appropriate hardware components, performance of different technologies and successful approaches.
  • Raise awareness amongst consumers and investors to build shared visions. Interaction with existing and potential users and suppliers greatly assists management of user expectations around different technological options and provides vital user feedback on designs and brands.
  • Fund experimental initiatives to test new technologies and approaches, connect supply chains, and establish value added activities such as product assembly and manufacture. Experimentation is essential to build capacity throughout the supply chain to establish how a specific technology works within a specific context.

“Africans cannot merely be the consumers of imported technologies,” argues Prof. Kevin Urama, Executive Director of African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS). “We have to build indigenous capacity to innovate and add value. In the case of solar products we should, for instance, be building infrastructure to service products and adapt them to the Kenyan context. That is where we have a comparative advantage. We need to understand the types of institutions, policies, and stakeholder networks that will assist us to this end.”

The two-year study, a partnership between the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex University and the ATPS, aimed to build a rich historical understanding of how the successful adoption of off-grid solar in Kenya was achieved and how policy can learn from this.

“… the knowledge generated from this … research… will be of great benefit to the Government of Kenya in its efforts to address issues related to climate change and reduce the levels of poverty amongst Kenyans,” says Prof. Shaukat Abdulrazak, CEO of the Kenyan National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Dr David Ockwell, Deputy Director of Research at the STEPS Centre said: “If policy is to have a transformative impact in future, it is critical that we move away from a focus on funding technology hardware. Instead we must develop nested institutions that focus on building critical technological capabilities within low-income and other developing countries. It is this that will drive sustained low carbon technological change with subsequent benefits for human and economic development.”

For more information on the project and access to research outputs, visit the STEPS Centre website or the CDKN project page.

Image courtesy of Solar Aid/ Richard Turner

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