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DRC: A central African off-grid solar PV opportunity

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) offers a compelling opportunity for investment in off-grid solar, a new market review signals.

With almost three-quarters of the world’s population without access to electricity living in sub-Saharan Africa, the region should be top of mind for development.

So far much of the activities in the region have been focused on East Africa and Kenya in particular. But there has been little attention to central Africa, dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo, with reasons cited including the unstable political and economic conditions.

Nevertheless, the country is considered to offer tremendous opportunity. The population is large at 80 million but electrification is low at just 9%, ranging from 1% in rural areas to 19% in urban areas, and where there is electrification low grid reliability, and there is excellent solar potential in the range 3.6-4.8kWh/kWp.

That is on top of the well documented Inga hydro opportunity, which if fully developed could provide up to half of Africa’s energy needs.

DRC solar potential

The market review from DRC market developer Élan RDC states that the DRC’s size and geographical features make it well suited for decentralised energy systems, where regions have a more autonomous and bespoke energy system that makes full use of the regional energy potential.

However, it also requires a broad range of products to satisfy the variety of demand. Whereas in other countries the focus has been on rural off-grid households, the largest potential consumer base in the DRC can be found in urban and peri-urban households.

As these urban households generally have both higher spending power and higher energy demand than their rural counterparts, the prospect of substantial sales is offered for companies prepared to provide larger, more expansive systems with flexible payment options.

There is also potential for pico-solar and smaller solar home systems sales in the DRC, particularly among the large population of urban and peri-urban poor. These households are comparable to off-grid households located in rural areas of neighbouring countries in terms of income and energy demand but are more densely grouped together, lowering acquisition costs.

These households offer the potential for pay-as-you-go models, as they are also targeted intensively by mobile telecom operators through mobile money agents.

Business opportunities

The review says that business decisions about the DRC need to be centred around affordability, accessibility and marketing. For solar PV businesses in the retail market, this requires partnering with distributors and retailers that have a wide network of retail outlets, experience with national logistics and, preferably, brand equity that positions small home solar systems as aspirational items.

For development practitioners, major goals must be to provide help for enterprises to access the investment and working capital they need to grow their businesses and to reach consumers. Simple guarantee systems have been seen to work well in building confidence between international technology providers and local distributors as they mitigate much of the risk of providing products on concession.

On the consumer side, much work still needs to be done to increase awareness of the advantages of solar PV products across all socio-economic groups. This work should be combined with support for the national sector association, ACERD (Association Congolaise pour les Énergies Renouvelables et Décentralisées) to improve the enabling environment for solar PV and improved cookstove products.

“The DRC’s market presents significant challenges. There is, however, a real opportunity, as shown by the investments already made,” the review concludes.

“The development community can play a role in realising the full potential of this market, with all the wider benefits that it will bring.”