Product: Social Enterprise Solar Lighting and Power
Client: Social Enterprise Solar Lighting and Power

“The new range of products had to be distinctive in appearance and reinforce our client’s reputation for quality, providing a new level of performance and usability whilst remaining affordable.”

Our client produces solar lighting and energy products specifically for low income populations in developing countries that do not have access to electricity. With the aim of improving access to affordable renewable energy, their mission is to help low income families break their dependence on inefficient, expensive and harmful light sources by giving them cleaner and cheaper options.

In recent years, our client has observed an influx of cheap, low quality solar lighting products on to the African market. Realising the need to differentiate from the competition, they partnered with Infinity to design its next generation of solar lighting and power kits. The new range of products had to be distinctive in appearance and reinforce our client’s reputation for quality, but most importantly, they had to provide a new level of performance and usability whilst remaining affordable.

To gain a proper understanding of both cultural and functional requirements for the new range of products, Infinity designers travelled to Africa to learn about the issues faced by both our client and those living ‘off the grid’ without access to electricity.

Our research looked into the problems experienced by users of the existing our client’s lighting products, competitor product analyses, our client’s product strategy goals for the future, and user needs and desires.

We held workshops and competitor product evaluation sessions with the sales team in Uganda. We also met with despatch, service and repair personnel to discuss the issues they face with product returns and listen to their suggestions for improvements to the system. Solar shopping expeditions to Kampala, Uganda also gave us an idea of how the point of purchase process works in Africa and what factors are affecting buyer behaviour.

To try to get into the mind of the end user, we travelled to the remote village of Itikulu and stayed overnight in the village to experience the challenges created by lack of light and power and the limitations and risks associated with using kerosene for light and charcoal for cooking.

It was no surprise to find that nearly all the villagers, having a strong sense of community, owned mobile phones. This allows instant communication with geographically remote friends and family, and just as importantly, a connection to the outside world through the internet. We found many small businesses that specialised in offering a phone charging service that people would often walk all day to access. Simple, reliable phone charging at home was a real need, as was providing a business oriented product that helped to empower budding entrepreneurs.

This research visit revealed how lives can be transformed by the introduction of solar power and lighting, but how the villagers struggled with cheap equipment, not designed for their needs. We observed how those with existing solar systems used them, listening to their concerns with the existing system as well as ideas and desires for a new system.

The common thread in this research was that many of the end users had had little to no previous contact with electronic technology and although some had used solar powered devices before, they mostly did not understand how it worked. The design solution had to eliminate the technology aspect. Connectors had to be minimised and the reliance on instructions eliminated. The product must be ‘plug and play’. It must be obvious how to install and use it, straight out of the box.

It must take into account the aspirational nature of the community and allow expansion for the use of radios, DC televisions and other rechargeable devices that connect the user to the world. The great challenge though, was to deliver a solution at the same cost as existing generic units, because paying a little more for a better quality product often is not possible, because of the low incomes of the target market.

Infinity designed our client’s family of solar lighting and power products to directly reflect these needs. By undertaking effective product research and listening to the user, and through close collaboration with them and their external partners, we were able to develop a range of lighting products with vastly improved features and performance, whilst maintaining an affordable price-point for the end user.

Intelligent design enabled the inclusion of many beneficial features in the new solar lighting and power range:

> Smart charging circuits to optimise energy collection from the sun and provide enough charge for a greater number of hours at night
> Tougher controller and component enclosures
> Resistance to water damage from leaking roofs
> Battery level indicators and a low battery warning system so families are never left in the dark
> Improved cabling configuration that suits the home environment and allows easy installation
> Brighter, more robust lights that use less power
> Meaningful, non-language based icons and product graphics to promote easier use
> The ability to power radios, fans and TVs
> A dedicated phone charge unit to support local business operators.
> The solar lighting and power system released in June 2013 has had nothing but positive feedback from users and has helped our client achieve a great result. The new range of products gives our client the market differentiation it was seeking and positions the company as providing an aspirational, quality product at an affordable price.