Google 'Pay as you go' and, before you find any kind of definition, you will have to wade through hundreds of not-to-be-missed offers from mobile phone suppliers, gas companies, local transport providers and even theatres.
Pay as you go (PAYG) is now a business model that is in widespread use and has put a broad range of products into the hands of millions of people who may not otherwise have been able to afford them. As an alternative to a monthly contract, the system usually allows users to make a low payment for the basic product, followed by up-front cash payments for either a fixed amount of time or a fixed amount of usage, ensuring that the product and its benefits remain affordable.
But for millions of people, the choice between a monthly contract and PAYG is no choice at all. Signing up to a monthly contract – whatever service you are buying - means having a bank account, a decent credit rating and the ability to pay for the services used, however much the bill comes to. For those with no bank account, no credit rating and no chance of accumulating either of them, PAYG is the only option.
So the application of the PAYG model to solar-powered lighting products is good news for a significant proportion of those who are living in isolated, often-rural, off-grid locations. And the levels of take-up are showing impressive growth.
The expansion of PAYG solar lighting availability is supported by the incredible increase in the use of PAYG mobile phones. With up to 75 per cent of farmers in Africa now having access to a mobile phone, it is now practicable to use them to process PAYG transactions.
And that means that more people than ever before can make use of solar-powered lighting. Previously, the problem was that many people could not afford the initial outlay, however cheap the running costs. Too often, if families were not gifted a solar light by an NGO or aid agency, the product remained out of reach. But by offering solar products at a much lower initial price point and then charging small amounts for usage (and to recover the full cost of the product) on a PAYG basis, the availability of previously unaffordable lighting is becoming much more widespread.
Whilst the growth of PAYG solar lighting in off-grid areas is huge, there is still greater potential. And that means a potential end to the fire hazards, health risks and high costs presented by using kerosene as a fuel. Indeed, the daily running costs of PAYG solar lighting are usually pitched at a lower level than the daily cost of using kerosene. It also means a potential end to the ongoing expense of replacement batteries. And because many of the solar lights have mobile phone charging points – certainly Freeplay Energy's products do – it means a potential end to expending time and money on phone charging services that are often located some distance away.
The good news does not, however, end there. Access for off-grid populations to affordable lighting enables students to study in the evenings and build better, more prosperous futures. It means that small businesses can continue operating after dark and increase their contributions to local economies. And it means that families can more easily socialise after nightfall, strengthening both relationships and communities.
The development by Freeplay Energy and others of solar-powered lighting systems marked a step change in the availability of green energy for off-grid communities. The combination of solar-powered lighting and pay as you go technology has the potential to make green energy available to all.