Consumer Awareness and Communication Regarding Solar Home Systems (SHS)

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From studies in different regions (Dominican republic, Senegal, Lesotho, Brazil) it appears that awareness of Photovoltaic (PV) systems spreads most effectively through word of mouth and seeing installed systems at schools, or neighbours.

Awareness within the Potential Market

A quote from a case study in the Dominican Republic (DR)[1]:

'marketing in DR has primarily been through word of mouth and demonstration. To facilitate demonstrations, Enersol occasionally lends lighting systems to dedicated technicians, who install them in their own villages and use them as exhibits to drum up sales. This marketing method has proven itself effective in introducing PV to new areas'

A detailed study into market awareness of PV has been performed inLesotho[2]. This study showed that there is little connection between awareness of the existence of PV systems and education, age, income, employment, or occupation. In 1993, 26% of the Lesotho population had heard of PV. In 1999 this had increased to 58% , mostly through seeing a system in the neighbourhood or at friends (74%) and for the remainder via the radio (15%). The impact of demonstration systems creating awareness of potential customers is high as 52% could also mention a dealer, but information on the need for maintenance does not automatically follow. 97% of the persons who had heard of PV systems did not know that maintenance is necessary. Results in Namibia are similar[3]: 50% of the unelectrified population knowing what PV is, 64% of these being able to mention a solar technician.

Generally it can be observed that the witnessing of working PV systems is the most important factor for the opening of markets for Solar Home Systems (SHS).

The awareness of the existence of PV is not the same as the awareness of the functioning, however. Even salespersons have been noted to refer to the importing agency when asked how a PV system works[4]. Evidence of the importance of dissemination of information on the functioning of PV systems is provided by a study in Zimbabwe[5]. Of households in the identified target group, 60% knew what a PV system is. This information was spread mostly by seeing systems in the neighbourhood. However, 56% of the people who said they would like to buy a PV system thought they can cook with the system.

Following the low awareness of the functioning of PV, the awareness of product quality is also low. Although brand names of components are used for quality assurance, this is not sufficient for the users, especially if they have no idea of the importance of matching components within a system. Negative experiences with inferior systems have damaged the reputation of PV technology, for example in Southern Africa[4]. Although components may be of high quality the modules are often undersized compared to the rest of the system. Also markets have been damaged by fly-by-night traders who disappear before the customer can return to complain. Because hardly any customers understand the functioning of a PV system, trust in the sales network is especially important.

The user satisfaction depends on the understanding and expectations of the system. If people are accurately informed on the possibilities and limitation of a SHS, they know what to expect and can make an ‘informed judgement whether to buy a SHS or not. Such people are generally more satisfied with their system than those who were promised ‘heaven on earth’ .

Understanding How Photovoltaic (PV) Works

A general conclusion from the literature is that users do have a basic understanding of the use of PV systems, especially the sense of the link between energy consumption and insolation is generally present. A number of monitoring studies show that the users do adapt their energy use to the seasonal insolation patterns[6][7], or that users save electricity to have a full battery for a party. However, many users have no idea of the concepts of electricity or batteries.

The understanding and knowledge of maintenance requirements depends very much on attention paid to user awareness and user instruction by a supplier or within a project. Many projects have special folders, booklets or posters especially for the users. These are commonly written in the local language, and are illustrated with pictures. The instructions include advice such as to clean the module and to fill up flooded batteries regularly with distilled water. This does not mean that the users understand the reasons behind these instructions, or will be motivated to carry them out. Especially when instructions are difficult to carry out (or impossible, such as in the absence of suitable replacement components), users may damage the system by taking measures as they deem appropriate. Examples include filling batteries with normal water or even acid when distilled water is not easily accessible. That the background and experiences of users with electricity is an important influence is shown by the fact that experiences have been encountered with users who are too afraid of electricity to even change a light bulb[8].

Evidence shows that user training can be (unintentionally) gender biased. Studies in South Africa[9] and in Guatemala[10] show that training was provided for the men, while the women were the main users of the system. The South African study observes that the women are not familiar with the basics of the functioning of their SHS (e.g. the meaning of the LED lights on the controller). The gender bias is usually unintended- in the South African example, the training was aimed at the household member involved in the loan agreement.

That training often does not reach the intended effect is shown in the Guatemala Zacapa project[10], reporting the following experience:
‘In each of its projects, The Fundacion Solar provided a group training on the use and maintenance of the systems before the equipment provider installed the systems in the community. During the installation, the company was then in charge of providing additional hands on training, and of monitoring the system at intervals of 30, 60, and 180 days. The majority of system users said they attended the training and had general knowledge of adequate maintenance procedures for their systems. In contrast, almost none of the users were able to correctly repair basic system failures. Instead of successfully solving problems, system users would often make false wiring connections, causing the regulator to fail, or they would simply disconnect the regulator.’

User Satisfaction

The user satisfaction depends on the provided energy service, the user understanding of the system, the availability and quality of maintenance and service, and the ability to pay.

Some remarkable findings on these subjects are:

  • Programme implementers have a ‘technology-fix’- viewing problems too much from a technology perspective rather than from the user;
  • users of larger systems are generally more satisfied,
  • satisfaction does not depend on the cause of dysfunctioning, however technically complicated or simple the problem may be;
  • the number, location and type of lights in a SHS kit often is not adapted to users’ requirements;
  • the low awareness of PV system functioning hinders a wider market introduction;
  • seeing working PV systems is the best advertisement, followed by ‘word of mouth’;
  • the absence of a (functioning) maintenance or service scheme or the costs of such a service is one of the main causes for complaints;
  • costs of SHS range between one tenth and half of the annual income of users on the commercial market;
  • a selection of users on criteria of ability to pay (including for maintenance and replacements) is beneficial for the success of credit schemes, fee-for service, and, importantly maintenance of the systems and replacement of parts;
  • the willingness to pay and how users value their PV systems depends strongly on the (perceived) alternatives.

Further Information


  1. Hankins, M.; Solar Rural Electrification in the Developing World, Four Country Case Studies: Dominican Republic, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe; Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF); 1993
  2. Green, T., Lepele, M.; Report on an evaluation of ALPHABEI Project activities in solar electricity and energy conservation in buildings; 1999
  3. Wamukonya L, Davis. M.; Socio-Eonomic Impact of rural electrification in Nambia; 1999
  4. 4.0 4.1 ECN, IDE Workshop 1999 report-confidential, 1999
  5. Cloin, J.; PV on thatch, a search for opportunities of sustainable implementation of PV in Manicaland, Zimbabwe; ECN; 1998
  6. Hammamami, N., A. Ounalli, M. Njaimi et al; Solar rural electrification in Tunisia, approach and practical experience, volume 1 and 2; 1999
  7. Schweizer-Ries, P. and K. Preiser; Socio-technical analysis of solar home systems in the Nepalese Himalaya; 1997
  8. Lasschuit, P. E.; Review of the PV market in Swaziland and evaluation of the Government solar demonstration project, Energy Research Foundation ECN, 1999
  9. APAS, Benefits and Impacts of SHS- 6 households; 1999
  10. 10.0 10.1 Alvarez, D, Santos, S., Vadillo, J. Domestic Photovoltaic Illumination Project Evaluation Stage I: Zacapa, Fundacion Solar, Guatemala