Towards a repair research agenda for off-grid solar e-waste in the Global South

A key player in the Global South OGS industry is the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA), which operates as an independent, not-for-profit industry association. GOGLA was established in 2012 and has over 180 members, for whom it provides advice and support. In partnership with the World Bank, GOGLA also hosts the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo. The 2020 forum and expo in Nairobi attracted more than 1,500 participants.

GOGLA broadly classifies Global South OGS products as either being affiliated or unaffiliated1,18,19. Affiliated solar products, which make up an estimated 30% of the market1,14, tend to be clearly branded products (that is, selling a brand name) that are usually certified by peak industry bodies (for example, Verasol) and are sold by private-sector companies that have sophisticated websites promoting and marketing their operations, usually with rhetoric around green technology and solving energy poverty. Beyond product development, these start-up companies are also often engaged in strategies to finance and facilitate their distribution, and their overall operations are usually supported by international investment4,20. They tend to frame their work as being social enterprises: market-based initiatives that are solving social (for example, energy poverty) and environmental (for example, climate change) issues11,21,22,23. These companies have attracted more than US$2 billion in international investment, predominantly from impact investors. Nevertheless, the industry is still nascent. Very few of the companies distributing OGS projects in the Global South are profitable; rather, current operations tend to be financed by debt and equity investments, making long-term financial sustainability an acute challenge across the sector4,24. The company Mobisol is emblematic of this challenge. It was heralded by many as an early success story, selling OGS products in East Africa25, and was framed as one of the stars of the sector of for-profit enterprises26. Mobisol filed for insolvency in 20194.

In parallel with this investor-backed PV industry has been the emergence of another solar market in the Global South. This market comprises the sale of what GOGLA and Lighting Global describe as unaffiliated products1. These unbranded products have proliferated alongside the affiliated solar product distribution chains and are sold by hardware stores, street vendors and informal purveyors27,28,29,30. Often deriving their designs from affiliated solar products, they are sold at cheaper price points, with their quality being more ambiguous23. Their presence is immense. Although the nature of their trading networks is rather inscrutable, the size of this unaffiliated solar market may be as large 72% of solar products sold, according to industry estimates1. Furthermore, as discussed below, their movement across Global South markets is distinct, creating additional challenges for addressing solar e-waste. The Global South OGS sector is thus complex, multifaceted and geographically dispersed.

Given this challenge, it is notable that current efforts to address SEW in the Global South have predominantly focused on the initiation of recycling schemes, rather than the potential repairability of these devices. As the issues associated with SEW have generated increasing public, non-governmental organization (NGO) and critical scrutiny31, the key industry players have responded by instituting a range of recycling and product stewardship schemes. Examples include the work of the waste management companies Enviroserve in Rwanda and Hinkley recycling in Nigeria, each collecting around 85 tonnes of solar e-waste in 2019 as a part of the Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge32.

These are important responses to SEW, but research suggests that they do not go far enough, as their reach is limited and, ultimately, they rely on relatively expensive infrastructure and logistical operations for waste collection. Importantly, these recycling projects also largely centre and rely on established solar distributors to conduct product returns. Indeed, recent research on extended producer responsibility in the electronics sector has shown how these top–down approaches can sometimes marginalize, and render illegal, successful and more localized informal repair and refurbishing economies33,34. In comparison, as we detail below, repair is a more salient approach for addressing solar e-waste, as it addresses e-waste much earlier on in the stream, it can provide economic benefits to the communities who do the repairing, and it can operate with more decentralized infrastructure and investment, making it a potentially scalable solution to the larger problem.

Recent international efforts to improve the repairability and interoperability of consumer electronic devices in general, and off-grid appliances specifically, have been the focus of sustained activism and advocacy that has culminated in the adoption of ‘right to repair’ provisions in intellectual property and consumer law31. However, it is notable that the adoption of right to repair provisions is unevenly distributed globally35. At the same time, recent scholarship has highlighted that enactment of right to repair provisions, common in the Global North, may have the effect of overshadowing locally coordinated cultures of repair and reuse that are common across Africa36. This work suggests that realization of a Global South ‘right to repair’, particularly in the context of SEW, requires a critical understanding of how political and economic dynamics shape OGS markets.

In the following sections, we attend to four structural challenges in the OGS market that have direct implications for SEW in the Global South. The first centres on the waste implications of competition between affiliated and unaffiliated OGS products. The second and third challenges centre on the SEW implications of manufacturers’ black-boxing technologies and the promotion of closed proprietary hardware ecosystems, respectively. The fourth challenge underscores the distributional challenges that characterize last-mile distribution in the OGS market and what this means for the issue of SEW.

Affiliated versus unaffiliated competition

The competition between affiliated and unaffiliated solar products is a central dynamic of the OGS market and is a key driver of SEW in the Global South. Although the production costs of solar panels and batteries have plummeted over the past decade, unaffiliated products still dominate most OGS markets1. For energy-poor households, unaffiliated solar products offer distinct advantages, being regarded as offering greater value relative to their costlier counterparts18,27,28. This has substantial implications for the burgeoning issue of SEW. In general, OGS-sector companies selling affiliated solar products have been somewhat active in implementing voluntary solar waste initiatives, with support from GOGLA37. As distributors of affiliated products tend to position themselves as social enterprises, these efforts are probably driven by a range of ethical and reputational obligations—to consumers, financiers and partners11—and they therefore have engaged in nascent attempts to address SEW38. In contrast, unaffiliated products, which tend to be sold through diffused networks of third-party distributors, have no direct involvement in SEW initiatives. Given that they constitute the majority of OGS products sold, the question of who bears responsibility for the resultant SEW looms large.

The proliferation of SEW is concentrated in nations of the Global South that lack the infrastructure and institutional capacity to tackle electronic waste, suggesting that the problem is not likely to be addressed by local regulatory bodies39. This is particularly the case given the dominance of unaffiliated OGS products, which often fail to meet current regulatory quality standards and minimum warranty requirements, highlighting the limited capacity for regulatory enforcement. Given the ubiquity of unaffiliated solar products, there are also concerns among affiliated companies that poorly designed regulatory frameworks might result in their businesses facing unfair competition from non-compliant distributors or bearing the costs of managing the waste of unaffiliated products, forcing them to raise their prices and thereby reduce their competitiveness1. These dynamics highlight the limitations of relying on market forces or government policies to address SEW.

Black-boxed technologies

The black-boxing of technology is a common practice in the OGS industry, particularly among affiliated manufacturers4. OGS products tend to rely on design techniques common in consumer electronic devices more generally, including the use of proprietary screws and tamper-proof design layouts that are intended to limit third-party access and repair. In addition, many OGS products utilize parts that are difficult to source locally. These design strategies are commonly rationalized in terms of ensuring quality and the preservation of product warranties. However, perhaps a more important factor in the inflexible design of OGS products is the way in which these devices are integrated with pay-as-you-go (PAYG) technologies, which are increasingly used in affiliated products40,41,42. At the heart of PAYG technology is the ability for distributors to remotely enable or disable their systems based on the user’s payment status. Understandably, affiliated producers and distributors see protecting interference with this remote locking technology as paramount43. It is increasingly the linchpin upon which their ability to lower the cost of operations and better compete with unaffiliated products rests. Thus, the limited repairability of affiliated products has direct implications for SEW, particularly as informal repair is widespread in the Global South14,44. This could also explain why unaffiliated solar products can be seen as offering greater value for money. Although unaffiliated solar products may—though not always27,28—be of lesser quality and durability, they tend to be easier to repair or upgrade in the informal repair markets on which energy-poor households tend to rely14. However, poor product quality, along with the limited skills and experience among informal technicians in repairing OGS products with closed/black-boxed designs, means that large volumes of unaffiliated products can end up as SEW.

There are signs that the affiliated tier of the OGS market recognizes the importance of improving repairability and extending the life of their products. The Global LEAP Awards has provided recognition and grant funding to firms looking to improve repairability, upcycle or recycle solar components. One example is Acceleron, which seeks to advance a circular economy for lithium-ion batteries by upcycling end-of-life batteries into new low-cost ones37. In parallel, there are products such as those offered by SolarWhat?! and Kuyere! that are seeking to disrupt industry norms. SolarWhat?! describes itself as ‘pro-solar, anti-waste’ and produces solar systems using open-source hardware that are repairable, reusable and recyclable45. Meanwhile, Kuyere!’s emphasis is on creating battery-free OGS systems. The use of capacitors, Kuyere! claims, allows for lower cost and reduced SEW while also providing economic empowerment through more localized assembly46. However, these approaches are still regarded as radical initiatives and are not reflective of the broader dynamics of the industry.

Closed proprietary hardware ecosystem

Allied to the black-boxing of technology within the OGS industry are closed proprietary hardware ecosystems. The majority of affiliated OGS systems distinguish themselves by offering all-inclusive plug-and-play systems. These systems are offered to consumers as integrated systems that require little technical knowledge to install. This compares favourably with unaffiliated solar products, which tend to be sold as discrete components (for example, a solar panel or battery) and require a technician (or semblance of technical skill) to install. However, these affiliated plug-and-play systems also have limited interoperability47. This means that cables and appliances that can be used with such a solar system tend to be brand- or manufacturer-specific. A combination of hardware (ports and cables) and software (digital handshakes) allows affiliated manufacturers and distributors to foster closed-hardware ecosystems48. This is justified in terms of ensuring quality and reliability, such as preventing the use of inferior-quality or incompatible products with their systems. However, it could also be argued that these measures ensure a brand ecosystem that allows distributors and manufacturers to profit from upselling parts and appliances (for example, televisions, fridges and fans). This practice greatly limits consumer choice, results in wasteful duplication, and constrains the establishment of second-hand markets for solar goods, especially for solar appliances48. In contrast, unaffiliated solar products tend to afford users the flexibility to use a wide range of components or appliances. Once again, we see how the affiliated versus unaffiliated dynamic in the industry presents various implications for SEW in the Global South.

Distribution geographies

Last-mile distribution is a major focus for producers, distributors and financiers of affiliated solar products. Although the tier’s social enterprise credentials appear to rest on its ability to electrify rural households, it is also widely acknowledged that they are the most expensive and challenging to reach1. Over the past decade, considerable resources have been invested in addressing the geographic and logistical challenges posed by OGS markets in the Global South4. This includes grants and supplier-side subsidies to absorb the costs of last-mile distribution49. Given these costs, the financial viability of collecting SEW from last-mile locations is questionable. These costs are exacerbated by the tendency for SEW to be thinly distributed across a growing spread of rural households and villages—it is seldom found in large quantities at a single location16,50. These distribution geographies also highlight the likelihood that the rural poor will disproportionately bear the negative social and ecological impacts of SEW.

We return to the question of who bears responsibility for the SEW generated through the consumption of unaffiliated solar products. Although cascades of importers and vendors ensure that unaffiliated products have superior reach at the last mile in large volumes, this also has the effect of obscuring and diffusing responsibility. Given the intense price competition from unaffiliated companies and the costs of last-mile reach, affiliated solar firms are unlikely to have an appetite for collecting unaffiliated SEW unless considerable financial support or incentives are in place12,32. With meagre state waste management systems and a lack of local recycling facilities for SEW, affiliated distributors would need to absorb the costs of collection, warehousing and transporting SEW overseas for processing—costs that would ultimately be reflected in higher consumer prices, further reducing the competitiveness of affiliated products, or appeals to investors and creditors for more funding.