Why Entrepreneurs in Asia Pacific Need to Talk More about Energy Access and Find Solutions

Over 400 million people in the region are living off the grid

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In 2015, a photo of Daniel Cabrera, a homeless Filipino boy, went viral. He had been captured by a passing stranger studying outside a McDonald’s under the glow of its outdoor lights. The nine-year-old Cabrera soon received a flood of donations from around the world, and eventually even starred in a McDonald’s commercial. Though the whirlwind of support deservedly took center stage, the photo also perfectly frames the issue of energy access, which was unfortunately talked about much less in the ensuing months.

Understanding what may initially seem a niche issue in energy access is important for founders in Asia-Pacific because over 400 million people in the region suffer from this problem. These off-grid consumers are also their potential customers, of course. The unbanked that many fintech companies in the region target, for example, also tend to live off-the-grid, where they must contend with day-to-day living without electricity. Gaining insight into their overall struggle will help founders develop better products for the people at the bottom of the pyramid.  

The struggle

In this view, Cabrera is emblematic of this wider crisis: he had to resort to such desperate measures to study because he and his family lacked light access. For Cabrera, this had been a nightly ritual. He would work on the makeshift wooden bench while his mom worked at a nearby restaurant. He had no proper place to study as his home had been destroyed by a fire some years back, though the contemporaneous news accounts are short on details. This problem of light access may seem hard to fathom for most city-dwellers who have to deal with light pollution, but it is very real for many poor people around the world.

Living off-grid, the poor usually resort to kerosene-based lamps. These lamps cause over 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia alone through accidental burns and fires, lead to skin, respiratory, and central nervous system injuries and ailments, and emit 140 kilograms of carbon dioxide per household each year.  It’s 2019, mind you—140 years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb—the problems associated with kerosene lamps should be a relic of the distant past.


Why the long wait?

The question then becomes: why? As Asia-Pacific continues on a course toward digital transformation, why do some people still have to contend with a primitive and dangerous solution like kerosene lamps? The root issue is not technology: there are many superior alternatives to kerosene lamps, most of which are quite affordable and readily available.

The core issue instead is awareness and education: we have not convinced the necessary stakeholders that light access is a cause that requires their immediate attention. As bad as accidental fires, health issues, and CO2 emissions may sound, they have simply not captured the public’s attention. But what if we taught them that you can have access to light, water, cooking, the television, and the global world through access to energy?


Promoting social mobility, not your product

How should entrepreneurs serve as an effective ambassador for the related issues of energy access and social mobility? We must focus on the social mobility that being connected to light, water, cooking, and indeed the world can enable through a solar home system.

According to a recent report, 44 per cent of customers with newly installed solar home systems can work more due to the increase in light hours, 58 per cent do more economic or business activities like opening an eatery or offering phone charging for a fee, and 84 per cent of household children report more time to do homework. Additional income, business revenue, and even better grades are all enablers of social mobility: people move up in life as these metrics improve.

More light, less energy cost

While having figures to show how energy access can facilitate social mobility are a great first step in market education, the most powerful resource will always be first-hand stories. If you donate a solar home system to an organization, for example, you can opt to talk about how your solution will create more light hours, reduce energy costs, and improve overall quality of life. But better still would be to actually depict these changes in action. Walk us through the daily life of a beneficiary who is experiencing these benefits first-hand. In other words, follow the cardinal rule of storytelling for your market education: Show, don’t tell.