Rural populations in developing regions such as Africa enjoy some of the world's sunniest days - but they also experience the darkest nights. Lacking electricity, over a billion people in these regions are forced to rely on kerosene lamps that emit no more light than a cigarette lighter, or on batteries that can supply power to a hut but require frequent refilling journeys to diesel-powered charging stations.

Today, however, there is another option: solar solutions. A solar lantern containing a small fluorescent or LED light with a rechargeable battery is an energy upgrade for kerosene lamp users. A solar home system that can power light bulbs and basic electrical appliances such as radios, cell phones and small televisions may be seen in the huts of villagers higher on the energy ladder.

Unlike the past decade, which saw solar solutions purchased mainly by international donors, it is now the locals who are increasingly opening their wallets to make the switch from their traditional energy means. That is because solar products prices in recent years have declined to become cheaper than kerosene and batteries.

With similar conditions throughout the developing world, and with payment solutions, such as small loans, becoming available to help defray the costs of up-front investment, this off-grid market is viewed as a new business opportunity. More and more solar companies are bringing energy to this underserved population while gaining a slice of a pie worth billions of dollars. The annual spending on lighting kerosene in Africa alone is estimated at over $10 billion, according to a 2010 report from Lighting Africa, a solar portable lighting program run by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank.

However, there are numerous roadblocks on the way to delivering solar products to low-income rural regions. For one, gender issues can cloud technology outreach. Katherine Lucey, founder of Solar Sister, which trains African women to be direct sellers of solar lanterns, said that in these regions women are largely responsible for procuring energy for their families, but cultural and educational bias may keep them away from accessing new technologies. Thus many simply follow traditional practice and continue to buy kerosene.

Even if villagers do happen to encounter solar lanterns or solar home systems, they are unlikely to risk their small savings without fully understanding the product. A well-trained distributor is required to communicate the relevant information.

In addition to the problem of low awareness, many solar companies note that the process of growing a distribution network must include setting up payment options for low-income customers.

Herath Dissanayake, founder of Wisdom Solar, which sells and installs solar home systems in rural Sri Lanka, said that his company has been forced to slow its distribution expansion for this reason.

Still, there are solutions to these distribution setbacks. In addition to raising awareness levels with radio advertisements and promotion booths in busy village spots, solar companies are using what is already there to get their products into the hands of villagers.

Solar Sister, for instance, has built up a distribution network of 107 direct sellers across three African countries since launching its operations two years ago. Its strategy is to cooperate with local non-governmental organisations that the rural community already trusts. Under the wing of the women-oriented organisations Solar Sister approaches, trains and provides selected women with stocks of solar lanterns. The direct sellers can then take the lanterns to their communities, and return the money once the products are sold.

"If I approached these women by myself, it would take years to just win their trust. But by doing it through a group they already know, things happen much faster," said founder Lucey. By now, the once inexperienced sellers have brought solar light to over 4000 African villagers.

Solar Sister isn't the only company to benefit from partnering with existing local groups. Roger Hattem, global business director at solar lantern company ToughStuff, said that sales in rural developing regions hit 200,000 units last year, even though the company's employees do not take its products all the way to the villagers. Instead, ToughStuff sends its team to find partners that already have a wide connection network, and adds its solar lanterns to their offerings.

Rather than distributing their solar solutions through allies, some companies still prefer to use their own teams. They believe that selling solar products is too tricky to be scaled up unless distributors are devoted to only one task: selling their solar products.

To this end, a solar lantern company called Greenlight Planet is building up its own distribution force from scratch. The company is training farmers, housewives and teachers to sell its lanterns in rural communities. Sellers who perform well may be promoted to regional leadership and receive overseas training, said Anish Thakkar, Greenlight Planet co-founder.

Meanwhile, on another continent, a company called SolarNow, which offers solar home systems in five African countries, created its own distribution network by building up an attractive brand model. SolarNow recruits retail shops which sell other goods to begin selling solar home systems.

In addition, SolarNow works to gain widespread brand recognition. Through hundreds of nationwide radio campaigns, rural Africans became familiar with the brand and trust the shops which carry it, making retailers' sales easier, said Willem Nolens, SolarNow's managing director.

Another innovative way that solar companies have discovered to distribute more product with less effort is to target specific groups.

Last October, on Mafia Island in Tanzania where a majority of the 50,000 residents live without electricity, d.light partnered with an organisation called SolarAid to launch a programme allowing some 11,000 local students to purchase a solar powered task light at a subsidised price - d.light sold over 3,000 solar lanterns in less than a week.

<i>By Yotam Ariel