Feature: Solar Power Adoption by Low Income Groups in Ghana

(Updated February 22, 2017)

Happy New Year from DAP! We begin the year with our first feature from the Africana Studies Global Initiatives with Mpho Bowie-Molefe:

Solar Power Adoption by Low Income Groups in Ghana

It came as a surprise to many of my friends that I had spent part of my summer in Ghana. For most mechanical engineers, summers are spent interning at engineering companies as a way of gaining experience and preparing to enter the workplace after graduation. What most of them don’t know about me is that apart from my Mechanical Engineering major, I am also minoring in Energy and Africana Studies. During the summer break I followed my curiosity, attempting to link together all of the disciplines I study. I applied for and was awarded a Ronald Ulrich Grant. This has allowed me to explore the impact of the accessibility to energy on people, since I was able to utilize the academic grant to fund a two-week research project to Ghana, guided by Dr. Essien and Dr. Peterson.

Mpho Bowie-Molefe (left) discussing research synopsis with colleague Gwladys Boukpessi (middle).

Mpho Bowie-Molefe (left) discussing research synopsis with colleague Gwladys Boukpessi (middle).

My project’s motivation lies in my belief that clean, sustainable sources of energy can be equalizing agents for impoverished communities, and will aid in the development of African countries like Botswana, where I am from. One of the leading causes of infant mortality in many parts of Africa today is respiratory infections caused by inhaling fumes from fires used for cooking and lighting. This is mainly experienced by lower-income groups, who cannot afford clean, sustainable sources of energy. Access to it, such as through the use of solar panels, could remedy this problem, removing the polluting fumes from people’s homes, and increasing their standard of living. Solar Power Technology (SPT) in particular, can also improve the lives of people who do not have access to electricity because they live in remote areas where the infrastructure to deliver power does not exist.

Another problem that Africa faces is climate change. My own country is currently in the midst of the worst drought in its recorded history, threatening the region’s food security. The adoption of renewable energy sources could help mitigate this problem by reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. With the recent downward trend in the price of solar power components, the technology holds a lot of promise for Africa’s lower income groups.


Interviewing a shop owner in Medina market in Accra, Ghana

For this reason my study explored the accessibility of SPT to lower-income groups in Ghana. The approach used for measuring accessibility was focused on determining physical availability, financial accessibility, and the level of awareness about SPT. To measure physical availability, a survey was carried out to determine the incidence of shops providing SPT components, as well as the range of components they offer, in Madina and Makola markets, two leading business centers in Accra. Financial accessibility was measured by looking at the price ranges of the products available in these shops whilst comparing them to the average income of the target group. To measure the level of awareness of SPT that the target group had, a survey was conducted in Ampomah village. The survey, which was distributed with local residents consisted of different questions relating to the technology such as:

  • Do you know what solar power is?
  • How does it work?
  • What solar power appliances/devices do you know about?
  • What solar power appliances/devices do you own?
  • What economic group would you say you belonged to?

The results obtained from the study demonstrate that although the prices of SPT have been dropping around the world, there are still several barriers to its adoption by low-income groups in Ghana. Physical availability was not found to be a barrier since the technology was readily available through local shops. However, it should be noted that there was not a large number of shops providing SPT products and their range of products was often very narrow, providing only a single type of solar panel or inverter. Financial accessibility was also not a steadfast barrier provided that there is access to term financing, but once again it can also be noted that adopters would have to make considerable financial sacrifices. The biggest barrier discovered by this study is the minimal level of awareness of SPT. The study demonstrates the need for education of low-income groups about how SPT appliances and devices work and how they can be accessed and used, but also more importantly, how central they can be to improving their standard of living.

A solar rechargeable lamp owned by one of the participants of the awareness survey.

A solar rechargeable lamp owned by one of the participants of the awareness survey.

Another important consideration that this project looked into was that of government programs. Through the Energy Commission, a government regulator, the National Solar Rooftop Program (NSRP) was created to provide the public with incentives to adopt rooftop solar systems for domestic use as a way of reducing peak load. Households are provided with up to 500W of free solar panels once other components such as batteries and inverters have been purchased. The program is an indication of the progressiveness and willingness of the government to adopt renewable energy solutions, however because its sole mandate is the reduction of peak load, it is unfortunately only beneficial for middle and upper income groups, who use the most power. Whilst the NSRP is a welcomed advancement, the government also needs to design a program that addresses specifically the access to clean energy for low-income groups.

My time spent in Ghana was truly enlightening. I enjoyed the vibrancy of the culture, and the liveliness of the markets where I spent a lot of time conducting surveys with local residents and business owners. More importantly, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the social and economic factors that affect how accessible SPT is to different groups. This is a small part of a larger global discussion about the responsibility of providing people with, and educating them about technology. Specific to my research is the question of the roles of NGOs and the government in improving the living standards of lower-income groups by providing, or subsidizing the cost of SPT in the absence of profit and immediate or direct economic benefit.


Image from Makola Market where the Physical Availability survey was conducted.

In the near future I hope to look into this more. I believe responsible engineering doesn’t simply end with a product but should also consider who it will be used by and how it will be used. I also hope that the research I’ve performed will aid in my future work and contribute to the continued discussion about the important part that technology plays in socio-economic development, and how policies can be designed to leverage it for this purpose. Although there is still work to be done in spreading the benefits of renewable energy, Ghana, like many other African countries, is taking a step in the right direction, having already proven its willingness to adopt the technology and incorporate it in its development model.

With Dr. Essien outside a shop providing SPT products.

With Dr. Kwame Essien (left), Mpho-Bowie-Molefe (right) outside a shop providing SPT products.

Special thanks is made to:

Mr. Ronald J. Ulrich ’65 for the generous donation for research.
Dr. Dzidzor Essien, Dr. Kwame Essien and Dr. James Peterson for their guidance throughout the project.
Mr. Selasi Agbemenu and Ms. Ajigitina Addah for their assistance with logistics and surveys.

Mpho Bowie-Molefe
Senior, Mechanical Engineering Major
Lehigh University, PC Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

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