Understanding Solar Distribution : Delivering Uganda’s Bright Future

Arun Abichandani, Elif Unlu, Mathangi Sivaramakrishnan and Arjun Kapoor are Team Uganda Solar. On a project for Haas Professors William Fuchs and Brett Green, our charter is to understand, analyze and offer recommendations on solar lamp distribution in Uganda. This project complements the Professors’  ongoing research projects in Uganda, mentioned in The Economist and Freakonomics among other publications.

Almost immediately after President Barack Obama’s historic visit to East Africa, we arrived in Uganda excited to meet solar manufacturers, distributors and NGOs. Our mission is to understand the distribution of solar lights and other goods to rural Uganda. In a country with limited infrastructure, the narrow and bumpy roads serve as the only link between Kampala and the smaller towns and villages across the country. Combined with the fact that more than 85% of the population lives off-grid, finding efficient and reliable solutions for solar lamp transport is a critical problem to solve if Ugandans are to have healthy, cheap and renewable lighting.

Barefoot Firefly Lamps

Better than kerosene and charges your phone too!

 One Game, Many Players
There is no shortage of manufacturers, distributors and organizations trying to increase solar adoption in peri-urban and rural Uganda. We met with several of them in our first few days, starting with our Berkeley Research Co-ordinator Vastinah who introduced us to the solar lamp experiments and their transport logistics. Barefoot Power, an Australian solar lamp manufacturer with a local office, was an eye opening visit. We got a first hand view of the products and how they are operated and repaired. Quizzing the country manager and her support staff, we learned the many challenges in getting lamps from their Kampala location to regional distributors and rural retailers.
Anne Kayiwa - barefoot

Meeting with Barefoot

Businesses with a social charter like Living Goods buy and transport high-impact products such as medication, solar lamps, stoves and contraceptives to local entrepreneurs and businesses, generating employment and providing access to life-improving technologies in rural Uganda. Their country director was an excellent resource for understanding the local distribution sector. BRAC is an NGO with probably the largest presence and distribution network in Uganda and were gracious enough to share their logistics and supply chain best practices in their interviews with us. UpEnergy is a well established distributor of efficient cooking stoves, now entering the solar lamp distribution business hoping to leverage their existing networks with micro-franchised entrepreneurs & NGOs.
Left : Taking stock; understanding UpEnergy's warehousing and logistics Right : Always be making deals; Our driver and guide, Herbert, seen with his new energy efficient stove from Up Energy. He will test it in his village to determine if he wants to be a micro-franchisee

Left – Taking stock: understanding UpEnergy’s warehousing and logistics
Right – Always be making deals: Our driver and guide, Herbert, seen with his new energy efficient stove from Up Energy. He will test it in his village to determine if he wants to be a micro-franchisee

Sipping Coke while understanding Century Bottling's distribution network

Sipping Coke while understanding Century Bottling’s distribution network

As part of our research back in Berkeley, we had identified a Coca Cola bottler (Century Bottling) and Unilever as companies whose superior reach would serve as an interesting model – both to compare existing solar distribution with as well as to creatively leverage for solar distribution. Fortunately for us, we could set up meetings with executives at both companies who were very interested in our work and very generous with their time and knowledge. Both discussions were extremely rich and impressed upon us the commitment, persistence and creativity required from multi-nationals who want to establish a local presence. We’re very excited to share our findings and ideas generated from these discussions.

Bright Future
Traveling in and around Kampala, listening to people’s stories and soaking it all in, we can see Uganda’s potential for growth. With the right public and private investments, Uganda can leverage its very young population and abundant fertile land to improve the lives of the millions in semi-urban and rural areas. Basics first though – lighting, energy, education and health. Market solutions are just as important as non-profit/charity work in enabling sustainable progress. That’s where we hope to do our small part, in understanding how solar lamp companies can profitably and reliably deliver their products.
Stay tuned for more updates, including one on our site visits to villages where research is being conducted and why this IBD trip is definitely Level 5 on the adventure scale.

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