Placing Consumers and Energy Efficiency at the Heart of Product R&D

Beyond developing highly-efficient and affordable products necessary for the off-grid solar market, consumer research can be key to help companies inform and improve product design. Dive into the story of M-KOPA and Greenlight Planet to learn more about how they are achieving this

By Riley Macdonald, Coordinator at CLASP, Co-Secretariat to the Efficiency for Access Coalition

Tucked in Nairobi’s Upper Hill neighborhood, M-KOPA’s headquarters reflect the rapid growth they’ve seen since the company’s founding in 2013. Initially only producing small solar lighting systems, M-KOPA has since broadened its solar home system (SHS) portfolio and now provides solar power to over 760,000 homes across Africa. All of this is managed through an in-house, pay-as-you-go financing platform.

Efficiency for Access Secretariat staff from CLASP and the Energy Saving Trust visit M-KOPA’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

A five-minute walk north of M-KOPA will bring you to the regional offices of Greenlight Planet — the market leader for off-grid solar products in Kenya. When Greenlight Planet launched over 10 years ago, their goal was to replace kerosene lanterns with efficient, pico-solar lamps. Now, they’ve expanded their offerings and customer portfolio to serve those with a household income of 2–3 USD per day to a household income of 2–10 USD per day. They’ve also added customers who have the option to connect to the grid, highlighting a move beyond strictly off-grid contexts.

As both companies continue to improve their product line and expand their offerings, one challenge remains clear: what’s the best strategy to get the price-point and design right for appliances paired with their SHSs?

While Greenlight Planet isn’t new to developing products, Radhika Thakkar, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Greenlight Planet, says that one of their special ingredients for optimizing product design is the willingness to partner with other manufacturers and distributors who have a better knowledge of certain markets and products. This allows them to gather knowledge and move more deliberately and thoughtfully. While home energy remains their focus, productive-use appliances like solar water pumps, solar mills, and cookstoves provide a likely opportunity for partnership, says Radhika.

Efficiency for Access Secretariat staff from CLASP and the Energy Saving Trust with Radhika Thakkar, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Greenlight Planet in Nairobi, Kenya

For M-KOPA, getting the right price, size, and efficiency of products has been a process of trial-and-error. In their off-grid simulated house, a 24-inch TV demonstrated the intricate balance between meeting the customer’s price ceiling and matching the maximum picture quality to the efficiency necessary to run with the system.

While SHS kits with lighting and a TV are M-KOPA’s bread-and-butter, the range of products they offer may soon change. According to Daniel Schroeder, Director of Market Development, the team has also been working to develop an off-grid refrigerator. In 2017, M-KOPA began field research to determine the appropriate refrigerator size for their system. Based on how much consumers were loading the refrigerators, the team chose to deploy samples of a 50 L refrigerator in the field for user testing. Even though the refrigerators were sized correctly for the load-case, their design did not meet consumers’ expectations for what a refrigerator should look like, with many saying it looked like a toy. “Sometimes you get it wrong”, says Daniel “but you have to be brave.”

In turn, M-KOPA launched a 100 L refrigerator in 2018 to better meet these expectations, and despite the size, it’s still typically only loaded halfway. This exemplifies the complex challenges associated with developing products for a nascent and sometimes misunderstood market and, says Daniel, the value of R&D assistance to help companies better understand their customers.

Beyond developing highly-efficient and affordable products necessary for this market, consumer research can be key to help companies inform and improve product design.

All of this is very experimental, says Radhika of Greenlight Planet, we’re just looking at what our customers need.


Greenlight Planet advises on the Technical Working Group for refrigerators and solar water pumps, M-KOPA competed in the 2017 Global LEAP Awards for Off-Grid Televisions, and both companies have several products quality-verified through Lighting Global Quality Assurance, all Efficiency for Access initiatives.

Throughout 2019, Efficiency for Access will release a suite of market, consumer, technology, and impacts research. Our latest publication in Springer’s Energy Efficiency journal highlights key findings from off-grid refrigerator testing data and synthesizes important consumer perspectives and our Refrigerator Technology Roadmap charts a course of action for improving fridge affordability and energy efficiency.

Efficiency for Access also manages a Research and Development fund aimed at accelerating innovation in off- and weak-grid appliance technologies. The second call for applicants is open through 16 August 2019.