Living in Lagos, 33-year-old Lawal Sheriff Olakunle is used to electricity shortages. He considers 10–15 hours of electricity a day to be stable power.
But the two-month blackout he experienced in 2022 was something else. Even before then he’d been hearing about solar-powered appliances, including solar fans, from others living nearby: customers and a sales agent for the company Sun King. But after two months in the sticky Lagos heat, without mains electricity or a generator to run his ceiling fan, “then I was convinced at least to get it.”
What he ended up buying was his first solar product: a solar home system that included a solar panel, battery, and light, in addition to the standing pedestal fan. A Sun King employee installed the panel, and now “the only maintenance I have to do is just cleaning the surface of the solar panel” every three months or so, or not at all during the rainy season.
He places the fan across from a window, and says that with good ventilation, it works well even at high temperatures. He uses it mainly at night during hot weather, leaving it on standby so that it runs on mains electricity when this is available, and switching over to solar-generated DC power when needed. The battery has never run out.
“I have never regretted getting it,” Olakunle says. “Heat is not friendly to the body.”
There’s also the convenience of having reliable lighting and a way to charge his phone (the solar system includes a USB port). Previously, if he had to charge devices during a power outage, he’d needed to find someone with a home generator or borrow a power bank.
Unusually for Sun King’s customers in Nigeria, Olakunle made a one-off payment (of 66,000 Nigerian naira, approx. US$ 150 at the time). For him, an accountant, this was affordable, but it would be out of reach for many Nigerians. And Olakunle says that prices have climbed since then as the naira has depreciated.
It’s a simple use case and a simple product. Yet this humble item has the potential to save lives.
The vast potential of off-grid solar
From well-connected neighborhoods in mega-cities like Lagos where electricity is still inconsistent, to underserved informal settlements and remote rural areas where connections are nonexistent, off-grid solar energy is helping to fill the gap in energy access.
Solar home systems are ramping up fast. These can includes lanterns and fans, as in Olakunle’s case, or extend to radios and TVs. In 2022, solar home systems made up the majority of the increased access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Sales in 2022 were double the level in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.
Moving a step up from individual solar home systems, the World Bank is betting on solar mini-grids as the way to electrify sub-Saharan Africa with renewable sources. Solar off-grid systems have a number of advantages apart from affordability and portability. For one thing, they can be more climate-resilient, including being less susceptible to power shortages during heatwaves and droughts. Solar energy kits have already proven useful in the aftermath of disasters, such as helping with communication and aid following Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, when the grid went offline for several days.
Solar fans are taking off
According to GOGLA, a membership association for the off-grid solar industry, solar fans are especially important in places without access to air conditioning or reliable power. A recent GOGLA report estimates that over 7.5 million people and over 43,000 businesses are currently using high-performance solar-powered fans, largely in South Asia.
In Bangladesh, users are reporting improved quality of life and extra productive time. In Pakistan, where there are both high temperatures and a robust manufacturing capacity for these products, they’re widely used, according to Oliver Reynolds, the market insights and data manager at GOGLA.
“We’ve also seen, especially in the last few years and especially in West Africa, an increase in the sales of fans in that area,” Reynolds says. This has been driven in part by the increasing efficiency and affordability of solar-connected fans and the solar home systems they are often bundled with.
Nigeria is a major market, given its persistent electricity issues and the movement to shift away from diesel generators to renewables for backup energy. “Especially in urban areas, it’s quite a mature market for solar,” Reynolds comments. “There’s a big need and it’s been evolving for quite some time now,” including among people on lower incomes.
There are a number of health benefits even apart from the obvious one of averting heat illness. Fans can help with ventilation for indoor cooking, and even to deter mosquitoes.
One drawback is that fans have limited effectiveness, or may even be counterproductive, above around 95°F – although debate continues about this threshold. More research is needed into models that can perform at higher temperatures and different humidity levels.
Getting solar fans to more people
Costs will need to come down to reach more people. For good-quality products (generally with built-in batteries or solar panels), GOGLA reports that an average solar-powered table fan is over US$ 30, while DC pedestal and ceiling fans are more expensive, and larger solar home systems are costlier still. These prices may seem modest to most residents of wealthy countries, or to affluent people elsewhere, but they’re unaffordable to those on lower incomes in the places that would benefit most from solar fans.
Unlike in Asia, across sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 95% of customers of solar home systems are paying for these systems on a pay-as-you-go basis. This is essentially a hire purchase agreement. There’s a small down payment, after which “you’re paying over time to end up with ownership of the system, and that also helps with a lot of the affordability issues,” Reynolds explains. “It’s still kind of an asset that they invest in, and so that ability to pay over time or to get customer financing to access to the clients has also played a part in the picking up in places like Nigeria.”
Sun King – a kind of one-stop shop in the off-grid solar industry, which designs, sells, installs, and services solar products through a network of local agents – has sold over 450,000 fans that are bundled together with solar panels or are solar-compatible as part of solar home systems. Three-quarters of its solar fans have been sold in Nigeria alone. These generally have expected lifespans of five years.
The company says that it aims to set national rates for products and financing plans with affordability in mind. Over a one- or two-year payment period, a pay-as-you-go customer might spend around 20% to 25% extra before coming to own a solar home system.
Tuga Omoyemi, Sun King’s vice president for pay-as-you-go in West and Central Africa, explains that the company doesn’t want to put out products that mean that customers “don’t have money for other things in their life, so we always try to make sure that affordability is key any time we design payment plans.” One result is very low default rates – less than 5% in Nigeria.
It also helps that they’re flexible about payment modes. Omoyemi notes that while Sun King would prefer to collect payments digitally for greater efficiency, mobile money payments aren’t standard throughout Nigeria, and some of the rural customers insist on paying in cash.
Part of the challenge in places like Nigeria has been creating the market in the first place (beyond nonprofit distribution of solar goods). “It’s not a product that you can sell like a bottle of Coke,” Omoyemi comments. “You really need to take your time and educate the customer because you are providing not just the product to the customer, but you’re also providing financing. So the customer has to understand how this ties into their daily, weekly and monthly budgets, how it’s affordable and the benefits they’re going to derive from getting it.”
GOGLA believes that a range of support is needed so that more people can benefit from good-quality, long-lasting fans that can improve both health and productivity. This support would extend to potential consumers (for instance through subsidies to vulnerable groups), off-grid solar businesses (for instance through tax exemptions), and technological innovators (for instance through R&D funding to design for extreme temperatures).
Some technological problems have mostly been solved, while others are still in progress. “Technology has gotten to a point where you essentially don’t need bright sunlight to be able to generate [energy], you just need irradiance,” explains Allan Ombungu, Sun King’s global product manager. While there will be less irradiance during the rainy season, for instance, “the way we design the product is that we have a factor of safety, so you would engineer the product using the worst-case scenario…So right from the design perspective, we are already thinking about this day when it will be cloudy and rainy and those are the parameters that we use to design the product.”
One major step forward would be improvement in battery storage. Customers are reporting that they would like longer run times, Ombungu says, and there’s generally a need to find a balance between affordability and battery capacity.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the people who work in the off-grid solar space tend to be optimistic about the future of the industry. They acknowledge the importance of grid extension (which the International Energy Agency projects will reach almost everyone by 2050). But for that “the costs are extremely, extremely high” and large infrastructure projects will take years to finish, let alone reach remote customers, Ombungu notes. “So Sun King still has a role to play because we are in touch with the customers already.” In addition, the company’s inverters allow customers to toggle back and forth between grid and solar electricity, reducing costs and prioritizing renewable energy.
Sun King isn’t alone in thinking that the future is bright for off-grid solar, including the modest-but-mighty solar fan.
“There is huge scope for the deployment of solar-powered fans to be accelerated,” emphasizes Reynolds.
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Jessica Irvine is a tech enthusiast specializing in gadgets. From smart home devices to cutting-edge electronics, Jessica explores the world of consumer tech, offering readers comprehensive reviews, hands-on experiences, and expert insights into the coolest and most innovative gadgets on the market.