QUALITY ASSURANCE | Off-Grid Standards and Regulations: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Headed? Reflections from Naomi Wagura, Lighting Global QA

By Naomi Wagura, Lighting Global Quality Assurance 

As the off-grid solar market in East Africa expands, more governments are considering standards and regulations for an increasing number of products, including off-grid appliances. Standards ensure poor-quality products are kept out of the market, provide a level playing field for all market players, and ensure end-consumers are getting the best value for their money. With the support of the World Bank Group, the Lighting Global Quality Assurance team has worked with policymakers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania to adopt quality standards for off-grid solar (OGS) products. Over the past three months, we have engaged with industry leaders and members of government in a series of events that highlight some of the opportunities and challenges the industry is facing today.

Many governments now recognize the need to include off-grid solar solutions in their electrification plans. In late March, I participated in a GOGLA Community of Champions event, which ran on the sidelines of the Africa Energy Forum: Off Grid event in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These two events gave governments a chance to showcase the work they are doing to deliver energy access through decentralized solutions. Both Kenya and Ethiopia plan to electrify millions of households using off-grid solar solutions. At the Forum, Ethiopia launched the second phase of its National Electrification Program. Ethiopia’s plan acknowledges the role off-grid products have played in expanding access to date and considers a number of policy options to enhance the enabling environment, including streamlining import procedures and expanding standards for off-grid technologies and appliances.

Helping governments like Ethiopia’s to adopt quality standards remains an important priority for the Quality Assurance team. We continue to work with a diverse range of government actors to communicate the value of quality standards and encourage a harmonized approach. In April, we collaborated with the Ministry of Energy in Kenya and GOGLA to host a two-day workshop on off-grid product standards in Nairobi. Attendees included representatives from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives; the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS); the Energy Regulatory Commission; the Rural Electrification Authority (REA); the customs agency; development partners; and the private sector. Participants presented on the status of current standards implementation efforts, discussed future needs for standards, and identified measures that could further improve the situation. The private sector also highlighted why standards are essential for the market and outlined the changes they would like to see implemented in order to increase the penetration of high-quality products in Kenya.

As governments work to develop and implement mandatory standards for off-grid solar products, collaboration among various ministries, development partners, and private sector stakeholders will become increasingly important. The workshop in April was the first time, in my experience, that this mix of players had come together to discuss off-grid solar product standards. We went into the workshop hoping that, at a minimum, stakeholders would share their knowledge and experiences. We were encouraged by their commitment to collaboration and partnership. Strong, cross-sector relationships will be helpful given the additional work needed to assess compliance with current standards, adopt standards for larger systems, and close loopholes. Kenya’s effort to convene different parties to develop locally-appropriate solutions represents an important step in effective policymaking and an important learning opportunity for other countries looking to improve the adoption and delivery of quality standards.

Finally, an emerging topic of interest to policymakers today is off-grid-appropriate appliances. High-quality and efficient household appliances allow end users to maximize the benefits of their solar home systems, while larger productive-use appliances, like solar-powered water pumps and grain mills, offer customers new income-generating opportunities. Unfortunately, the nascent state of the off-grid appliance market and dearth of reliable data make it difficult to assess whether the market is ready for regulation. Our participation in a March workshop in Addis Ababa organized by the African Union Commission and supported by the European Union Technical Assistance Facility (EU TAF) reinforced this claim. Many questions remain over when and how to regulate off-grid appliances as the market develops. New resources for policymakers covering testing, standards, labeling, and product performance for off-grid appliances are under development. In the next month, the Efficiency for Access Coalition will release a policy brief on quality assurance for the off-grid sector and a data tool which governments can use to identify quality fans, televisions, and refrigerators. Together these resources anticipate and address some of the sector’s emerging needs.

Looking back on the past few months, it has been exciting to see governments intensify their commitment to product quality through new policies and collaborative approaches. To assist with these efforts, we developed a number of materials for government stakeholders, including three documents from late 2017 that introduce quality standards for off-grid solar productsexplain the role of product testing, and describe the benefits of harmonizing test methods and quality standards. We will continue to work with governments to develop policies that encourage the widespread diffusion of quality products.