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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

A study of consumer involvement in off-grid rural electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa: With a focus on product design in solar PV companies

More than 500 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to electricity. Solar PV could be a solution particularly in rural areas, yielding similar benefits as grid electrification.
But companies in solar PV struggle to design products that meet consumer needs. Following the sale of cheap and unreliable copycat products in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, they also have to re-establish consumer trust. One solution could be to involve consumers more closely in the product design process.
The focus of this research was therefore to investigate methods of consumer involvement that solar PV companies working in Sub-Saharan Africa could exploit in product design. Through an analysis of the current practice of consumer involvement, including a study of its barriers and benefits, recommendations were developed for both start-ups and established companies.
The research approach adopted in this thesis includes a literature review and a survey across 17 solar PV companies working in Sub-Saharan Africa. The survey consisted of a questionnaire providing quantitative data and follow-up interviews yielding qualitative data. The products investigated range from solar lanterns over solar kits and solar home systems to micro-grids.
Findings from this research provide evidence that companies already involve consumers, albeit in a very limited manner. The largest barriers to consumer involvement represent the difficulty to organize or manage such methods and their time taken. Nevertheless, benefits abound, with interviewees stating that consumer involvement leads to additional publicity, increases the overall speed of the product design process and provides insights into price points and marketing techniques. If practiced correctly, consumer involvement can therefore play a significant role in creating win-win situations between companies and their consumers.
This dissertation recommends that companies consider product testing, feedback mechanisms, joint workshops, initial home stays and local employment as tools in product design. To overcome barriers associated with consumer involvement, local offices should be established and local partnerships should be strengthened. Established companies in particular need to embrace a culture in which processes are developed from the bottom up.
Keywords: Off-grid electrification, Solar PV, Consumer involvement, Product design, Sub-Saharan Africa


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.