The award of stage one of the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition in January has provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the outcomes achieved so far.
This blog post was co-authored by Makena Ireri, Manager of Ideas to Impact's energy access innovation prizes and Programme Manager at Energy 4 Impact, and Lorenza Geronimo, Ideas to Impact Communications Manager, based at IMC Worldwide.
The Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition, under the Ideas to Impact energy access prize theme, is more than halfway through. For the first time, a prize aimed to encourage the development of energy-efficient fridges that are affordable and suitable for poor communities in off-grid areas. The fridges that are available on the market (if any at all) are expensive, consume too much energy or are inappropriately designed for the end user. This has held back the flourishing of businesses and prevented households from accessing the benefits of refrigeration.
We were lucky enough to receive 57 nominations from 38 organisations across 12 countries. We shortlisted 24 products, which underwent laboratory tests. In January, at the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo in Hong Kong, the winners for energy efficiency and overall value were revealed, receiving cash prizes of $200,000, alongside best-in-class products in five size categories. The 19 best products have made it to the next phase, field testing, which will be conducted in Uganda. Based on the results, in July 2018 we will award the third innovation prize based on appropriate design and user experience ($200,000).
The award of the first stage of the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the positive outcomes achieved so far:
- Set benchmarks in a new market. We helped to accelerate this new market, in which we set high standards of technical performance, based on best international practice. Fridges were rigorously tested in a laboratory in the Netherlands based on energy efficiency and other technical parameters and the results informed judges’ decision on the winners. The benchmark we set in the solar refrigeration industry should increase contestants’ credibility in the eyes of both investors and potential consumers.
- Know what potential users think about your product. Small businesses and households across eastern and western rural Uganda will trial the fridges that passed the lab testing phase. We will remotely monitor their technical performance against lab testing findings. Then, every two weeks over the next three months, the prize implementing team from Energy4Impact will visit and conduct surveys to check if they are improving firms’ productivity and families’ lives. Field testing gives us a real-life insight into solar refrigeration impact and will help the judges decide on the winner of the appropriate design and user experience prize. This will be a good litmus test of the fridges’ potential commercial success and, together with lab testing, increases manufacturers’ credibility. Investors have started to approach us to get in touch with them!
- The competition catalysed research and development. Some contestants had already developed energy-efficient fridges. Others had produced prototypes which did not meet energy efficiency requirements and did not target low-income consumers in off-grid areas. While others started from scratch just so they were able to participate. The prize pushed manufacturers to go further and overcome the uncertainty to enter a new market. This was the case of US firm Sundanzer, which designed the DCR50 fridge specifically for submission and won the overall value innovation prize.
- Value for money. While it is sometimes not easy to see the impact of a grant on improving poor people’s lives, the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition has already produced good results, even before the disbursal of all the prize money. The best products have been discovered and tested, companies have invested their own resources to participate and the market has innovated in response to the prize. Moreover, donors funding in the form of cash prizes is only awarded to the best appliances. Meanwhile, all the appliances developed, regardless of whether they will win, will have a positive impact.
- New partnerships. The competition spurred collaboration among donors towards a common goal. It also opened avenues for partnerships between would-be competitors. Even though none of the appliances developed so far is per se the magic bullet that will solve the access to energy challenge, contestants are now aware of each other’s products and could potentially collaborate to develop new technology or adapt current technology. For example, a company that has developed a fridge with great autonomy could work with another that has solved the energy efficiency or price issue. The industry is still young enough to accommodate this type of collaboration.
- Unusual suspects. Being open to everyone, we reached unusual solvers, which would not have been possible through a grant, where the same individuals and organisations tend to compete. Interestingly, only 3 out of 57 nominees had ever interacted with donors such as USAID and DFID before.
We are excited about how the competition has gone so far and what has been achieved. In the next blog post, we will share the challenges we have experienced, how we tackled them and the lessons we learnt. These will inform the Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge, which will launch later this month, to identify the world’s most innovative cold chain technologies appropriate for agricultural produce aggregation in off-grid areas. Stay tuned.
Cover photo: DFID Senior Energy Innovation Advisor Steven Hunt at the award ceremony of the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition at the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo in Hong Kong on 22 January 2018. Credit: GOGLA.