Championing the Cause for Quality in Off-Grid Solar Products
Why, one might ask, should we care about product quality assurance if our goal is to increase access to modern energy services? To answer this, let us use the example of someone who is interested to buy a solar lighting product. In such a case, how is she to know how long the product will last, if she can trust the information that is printed on the box about the number of hours the light will function, or if she would be able to get help from the manufacturer to replace the battery if it spoils before the (promised) end of life? What credible sources of information can she access to help herself select a product that will meet her needs and perform as advertised? Quality standards and verification testing are means of ensuring that accurate and trusted information about products is available to buyers for supporting purchasing decisions.
Quality assurance systems can help address problems associated with a lack of information – If every buyer had perfect information on key product attributes such as product life, the number of hours a product will deliver light, and the brightness of the lamp, they would be able to select the mix of price and quality that they desire. In the case of imperfect information, a buyer may end up overpaying if she overestimates the quality of the solar product or not purchase at all if she underestimates the quality. The result is a ‘market failure’ because an optimal transaction that meets the needs of buyers and sellers alike does not occur.
It is in this context that the Lighting Global program enables buyers to access the information that they need. The Lighting Global program operates an independent, non-commercial global quality assurance (QA henceforth) framework for modern off-grid energy and lighting products. It is the World Bank Group’s platform supporting sustainable growth of the international off-grid lighting market as a means of increasing energy access to people not connected to grid electricity. Through Lighting Global, IFC and the World Bank work with the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA), manufacturers, distributors, and other development partners to develop the off-grid lighting market.
The Lighting Global program provides market insights, steers development of quality assurance frameworks for modern, off-grid lighting devices and systems, and promotes sustainability, in partnership with industry. IFC and World Bank jointly manage off-grid lighting programs in more than 10 African countries through the Lighting Africa program. The success of the Lighting Africa program has inspired replication through the Lighting Asia program, which includes Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, as well as Lighting Pacific in Papua New Guinea. Lighting Global supports Lighting Africa, Lighting Asia and Lighting Pacific, which work along the supply chain of off-grid solar products and systems to remove market entry barriers and reduce first mover risks.
The Lighting Global Approach
This framework includes testing and verification of quality and performance of off-grid solar products. The approach used is informed by stakeholder consultation and field research. The framework seeks to strike an appropriate balance between quality and affordability, and seeks to rigorously evaluate product quality without interfering with the ability of manufacturers to innovate. This is done by using a non-prescriptive approach that focuses primarily on product durability and on confirming truth-in-advertising (i.e. making sure that manufacturer’s advertised performance claims are accurate). The Lighting Global QA program can be broken into three main elements:
- First, it uses test methods that have been adopted by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), to determine whether products meet the Lighting Global Quality Standards.
- Second, it coordinates an international network of test laboratories that conduct the tests on a commercial basis. When manufacturers submit their products, Lighting Global sends an agent to the manufacturer’s factory warehouse to collect samples randomly from the company’s available stocks, thereby, helping to ensure that the products that are tested are representative of those that are sold to buyers. The QA program’s network of six test laboratories, which includes labs in Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe, has tested over a 130 products using the Quality Test Method procedures described in IEC Technical Specifications. Currently about 50 products meet the Lighting Global Quality Standards according to these tests.
Once products meet the Standards, they are subject to market check testing in which samples are randomly selected from retail outlets on a “secret shopper” basis and tested to determine if products sold in the market match the quality and performance of those that were evaluated originally using warehouse samples. Over the past five years, sales of products that were quality assured under the Lighting Global program have exceeded 10 million units globally.
- Third, Lighting Global seeks to communicate information about product quality to the market. It does this primarily by listing products on its website and by generating a standardized specification sheet that contains a summary of key test results. The website and specification sheets are intended to communicate information about product quality to product distributors, other supply chain buyers, and financial sector stakeholders that play a role in the off-grid market.
Lighting Asia’s video on quality assurance standards for off-grid lighting products also documents this process.
What would happen in the absence of an effective quality assurance framework? First and foremost, many buyers would unwittingly purchase low quality products, which could lead to frustration and a financial loss. Moreover, because buyers would not have good information to help distinguish between poor and good quality products, the disappointment that these buyers experience when buying a low quality product could undermine confidence in all off-grid energy products. This would suppress demand for good and bad quality products alike. The program is constantly seeking stakeholder feedback and aims to improve the program and to react to new market conditions. Some of the areas that it is focusing on for these improvements are:
- More efficient testing – Testing products quickly and cost-effectively without diluting the strength of the quality assessment is a big focus area of the Lighting Global QA program.
- Expand the scope – Based on stakeholder feedback and market demand, Lighting Global is now working to expand its framework such that it will cover testing pico-solar products as well as larger solar home system kits with solar modules in the range 10 to 100 watts.
- Quality signaling – New ‘on-the-package’ reporting requirements have been announced for all quality assured products. These products now need to report the light output, daily operation time, and basic warranty information on the package according to standardized guidelines.
The Lighting Asia/India program and Lighting Global partnered with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, to build capacity and lab infrastructure for testing off-grid lighting products in India. The program also provided training and skills to laboratory staff in testing these products. With the launch of the testing laboratory and the introduction of the international quality standards, the Lighting Asia/India program is enabling expansion of the sector of quality assured, modern off-grid lighting devices and systems in the Indian sub-continent. The program regularly organizes stakeholder workshops and sessions to highlight the relevance of internationally accepted quality assurance methods. This includes activities ranging from outreach to microfinance institutions to engagement with the test labs and standard setting institutions.
Contact Lighting Asia/India
About Lighting Asia/India
Lighting Asia – India is an IFC market transformation program aimed at increasing access to clean, affordable energy in rural India by promoting modern off-grid lighting products, systems and mini-grid connections. The program works with the private sector to remove market entry barriers, provide market intelligence, foster B2B linkages and raise consumer awareness on modern lighting options. The Lighting Asia/India Program is supported by the governments of United States, Italy, Austria, and Australia. The Program is partnering with manufacturing companies (Barefoot Power, D.light Energy, ECCO Electronics, Greenlight Planet, Omnivoltaic, Orb Energy, Panasonic India Pvt Ltd and SUNLITE) and distribution companies (Frontier Markets, Dharma Life, Mahindra EPC and TOTAL Oil India Pvt Ltd) in this effort.