The future of plug and play solar home systems: Climbing the energy ladder


    June 28, 2021


    Many isolated communities are living far away from grid connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa.


    Relevant and affordable energy solutions, like mini-grids and solar home systems, are enabling these communities to leap-frog the grid, imitating how most homes jumped from landlines to mobile phones in the telecom industry. However, the future of smart grids is disproportionately accessible to the emerging markets in Africa. Energy poverty is multi-layered and sustainable lighting solutions have been the most vital technology intervention, but represent only a fraction of what constitutes global access to energy.


    Powering energy access with ‘hidden design’

    The team during a market research in Gaya, India
    The team during a market research in Gaya, India
    On a journey to understand how energy demand and supply can be connected intelligently, Rural Spark’s co-founders Marcel van Heist and Evan Mertens studied the rural villages in Gaya, India in 2013. When traditional industrial design research failed to capture the true role of energy in the daily lives of Bottom of Pyramid customers, they turned to the hidden design method. This method consists in studying the market as though the people interviewed were real customers, and not simply survey respondents, to get honest opinions and avoid any bias. For a technology that is, literally, so close to home, the product design must address people's actual needs.

    The key insight was that poverty only renders this technology unaffordable, not undesirable.”

    This insight powered the design of our affordable and scalable Rural Spark Energy Kit – consisting of solar panels, routers, ‘smart’ batteries, and electrical appliances. Early adapters of solar home systems inspire others around them to join the network, or even become small scale energy providers in their community through ‘energy sharing’. The freedom to add appliances to the energy kit is the most potent element of its modular design. Furthermore, the pay-as-you-go solution offers affordable payment plans to customers, thus eliminating the huge payment barrier and simply powering the future with plug and play solar grids.

    Missing middle: A partnership to increase solar engineering capacity.


    In 2018, we moved our operations from India to Africa.


    Every country in Africa is unique, with its own challenges to overcome. The only way to facilitate energy access in a market is to understand the underlying factors which stand in the way. This goes beyond just treating the symptoms by providing technical and payment solutions.

    Our solar engineer in Kenya setting up the training for the local distribution team
    Our solar engineer in Kenya setting up the training for the local distribution team

    Local capacity development for the off-grid energy sector is a big word and even though there has been progress, there is still a lot to do. Thanks to the common vision and funding support from the Signify Foundation, Rural Spark can develop a program to increase the solar engineering capacity for the local distributors in eight countries Liberia, Mali, Burkina Faso, DRC, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, and Mozambique.


    Over the next few months, together with Enlight Institute, we will be able to provide solution-oriented training for aftersales skill development and solar technical toolkits. The goal is to hire one person per country and provide advanced solar engineering training to them, and then training the salesforce of each distribution partner.


    Bringing together market actors to roll out effective after sales service can be a game changer in said markets for the benefit of Bottom of Pyramid customers. Among other spillover effects, this will create job opportunities, develop local knowledge and improve the current access to energy. This project is a crucial enabler in taking solar technology closer to the last mile. With the support of impact driven institutions like Signify Foundation, we continue our journey to capture sunshine in the homes of Africa.

    About the author:

    Gopika Beela Shibu

    Gopika Beela Shibu

    Partnership Specialist, Rural Spark


    For further information, please contact:

    Signify Global Integrated Communications
    Neil Pattie
    Tel: + 31 6 15 08 48 17

    About Signify


    Signify (Euronext: LIGHT) is the world leader in lighting for professionals, consumers and the Internet of Things. Our Philips products, Interact systems and data-enabled services, deliver business value and transform life in homes, buildings and public spaces. In 2023, we had sales of EUR 6.7 billion, approximately 32,000 employees and a presence in over 70 countries. We unlock the extraordinary potential of light for brighter lives and a better world. We have been in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index since our IPO for seven consecutive years and have achieved the EcoVadis Platinum rating for four consecutive years, placing Signify in the top one percent of companies assessed. News from Signify can be found in the Newsroom, on X, LinkedIn and Instagram. Information for investors is located on the Investor Relations page.

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