Africa's lighting must move off-grid to succeed

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The Global Off-Grid Lighting Association outlines progress at recent talks to develop an efficient lighting strategy for West Africa

Officials from 18 energy ministries met in Benin in October to develop an Efficient Lighting Strategy for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Andreas Adam from Osram and I represented the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association at the event.

Originally focused on the shift to efficient lighting on-grid, Andreas and I worked closely with colleagues from the UNEP EnLighten team to raise the profile of off-grid lighting solutions in discussions and promote policies which would support off-grid lighting market growth. A key market to reaching the 600 million rural African's without access to ‘on-grid' electricity.

The major barriers holding growth back in West Africa include high VAT and tariffs, state-funded free or heavily subsidised distribution of off-grid lighting products, a lack of demand or awareness and low distribution capacity. There were also fears that ECOWAS would seek to develop its own Minimum Energy Performance standards outside of the framework being developed by the World Bank's Lighting Global organisation, including potentially market-distorting performance targets.

An important, and much awaited, outcome of the meeting was that ECOWAS's off-grid Minimum Performance Standards were developed in line with existing standards by the International Electrotechnical Commission and Lighting Africa, which is an offshoot of Lighting Global. These, still in draft form, importantly acknowledge high VAT and tariffs as a barrier, with officials explaining the difficulty they face winning support from ministries of finance and other parts of government for lower rates.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) pledged to continue to support off-grid lighting, commissioning new research into health nad safety, the economics of fuel subsidies and the impact of off-grid lighting on jobs. UNEP also agreed to develop a ‘toolkit' to make policymaking more evidence-based and assist officials in building support across government.

There was widespread support for public awareness campaigns from civil society groups, in order to help create demand, and for a region-wide response to e-waste management. Ambitious plans are being developed in the areas of monitoring, verification and enforcement as well as environmental management'.

Questions remain regarding the cost, timeframe and feasibility of implementation at national level for all of these promises, however the meeting took ECOWAS one step further towards improving marketing dynamics for off grid lighting products in West Africa and improving customer choices for clean, efficient energy.

The Global Off-Grid Lighting Association aims to continue to work with governments to help boost access to lighting in Africa. We often talk about a potential market of hundreds of millions, but today policy barriers mean millions of customers in West Africa remain out of reach.

While it takes time to build consensus around why and how to catalyse the market for off-grid lighting, our active involvement in this important regional policymaking process could give us a great platform to build on as we seek concrete changes in policy at national level across the West Africa region.

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