The growth of the off-grid solar industry is good news for development, however, with a limited lifespan, the large number of solar lanterns and home systems being distributed in sub-Saharan Africa is also adding to the region’s existing problems with electronic waste (e-waste).
To understand this issue further and to explore opportunities to respond to this issue, the University of Edinburgh and SolarAid* created a three-year PhD project to explore end-of- life issues in the off-grid solar sector south of the Sahara. The three-year project aims to produce recommendations as to how actors can take action to minimise waste, facilitate recycling, and encourage repair. Firstly by looking at what is happening now, what parallel markets are doing, and then identifying viable solutions that would allow the industry to react and strengthen the sustainability of the sector.
The project is being led by Declan Murray and focuses on Kenya; chosen as the most advanced market in the region. Kenya’s longer exposure to solar technologies means that broken, discarded, and waste solar products are already present in the country. To ensure that the findings of this project remain relevant beyond Kenya, and that key players can inform its direction, Declan sits on the GOGLA Working Group on Sustainable Value Chains. Declan is also involved in the global Off-Grid Solar Scorecard project seeking to improve product design in the sector.
In the first 18 months of the project Declan has undertaken advanced research training and designed the fieldwork portion of the project. Declan also completed a four-week secondment at SolarAid’s London office, where he ran a pilot survey of solar users in Kenya. A follow-up is planned to further investigate attitudes towards, and awareness of, waste. In addition to a three-month course of intensive Swahili tuition, Declan has already conducted primary research in Dubai, Mombasa and Nairobi looking at solar supply chains and logistics.
Declan is now conducting the field research. It covers five areas:
- Repair opportunities: Declan is training to be a repairman in Bomet town in the lower Rift Valley to get first-hand experience of how repair networks operate and factors affecting the success rate of repairs.
- End-user behaviour: conducting a follow-up to last year’s pilot survey will provide additional insight into how users in Bungoma county decide what to do with solar waste and where in the home they put it.
- Legacy learning: tracking down and visiting some of Kenya’s earliest solar installations will also uncover how solar waste has been treated so far and identify lessons from past experience.
- Viable solutions: Declan will be interviewing industry, government and NGO actors in Nairobi to ensure his recommendations are compatible with the interests and resources of the sector players.
- Waste activities: there will also be time spent observing waste workers in Isiolo County to inform Declan on how solar waste might interact with existing waste economies in Kenya if not already doing so.
*Due to a restructure at SolarAid, much of the research and impact work has been rehomed at Acumen. Kat Harrison, Associate Director of Impact is continuing to supervise the research from there.