Africa has long been a dumping ground for the world’s waste and unwanted produce. From discarding toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire and off the cost of Guinea to the mountains of e-waste building up in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, businesses and governments around the world are putting African lives at risk in the pursuit of a quick buck.
Apparently justified by the very low levels of average disposable income in Africa, substandard imported drugs have left thousands – even millions – of people without the levels of treatment and health protection they expect and are entitled to. Ineffective fertilisers shipped into Africa leave many farmers tilling soil that is just as barren after the fertilisers were used as before. And cheap, badly-made and unreliable electrical goods often break down soon after purchase – the promise of an easier life is replaced by a reality of wasted money.
Such appalling disregard for the lives and well-being of millions of people in Africa does attract the occasional headline, often followed by official hand-wringing and minimal action. But, whilst dumping waste and selling dodgy pharmaceuticals risks lives, the dumping of poor quality products on the African market carries less risk to life and limb and therefore tends to attract less media attention.
At Freeplay Energy, we have long been aware of these problems, but the issue of inferior electrical products was brought starkly home to us only recently.
We were contacted by someone working ‘in the field’, who said that a recent bulk purchase by an NGO of cheap solar-powered lights was extremely disappointing. The decision, they said, was based entirely on the unit price being extremely low. Unfortunately, so was their quality, they continued, and ‘…everyone knows they are rubbish.’ That meant that each product would likely need to be replaced within a short space of time, making the original investment a false economy and leaving recipients desperately disappointed.
It is an issue that we have known of more-or-less since Freeplay Energy was established. Our products are not the cheapest on the market, but we work hard to ensure that they are the best. They are designed for years of use in challenging environments.
In other words, they are built to last – and they do. It is not unusual to see Freeplay Energy products in use years, even decades, after they were first bought. Which means that, whilst their initial purchase price may have been higher than some so-called competitors, they offer better value for money and - most importantly - a better outcome for off-grid families.
Many other reputable manufacturers have experienced similar situations, with short-term pricing taking precedence over the longer-term savings offered by high quality products.
The quality issue is further compounded by the issue of counterfeiting. Products made by brands with a reputation for high quality are often copied using cheap, unreliable or non-working components and sold by unscrupulous traders as the real thing. For example, a solar lamp that should take four hours to charge fully may actually take 12 hours. Supposedly rugged products may well shatter when dropped for the first time. Components may be poorly fitted, or may just not work at all.
In many cases, only rigorous testing by an independent third party can really show the good from the bad. Fortunately, such organisations do exist.
Lighting Global, for example, offers a highly professional quality assurance programme as part of its mission to support the sustainable growth of the international off-grid lighting market as a means of increasing energy access.
Lighting Global’s endorsement arries a high degree of credibility. In the absence of any meaningful statutory quality assurance in the region, it provides an invaluable benchmark for sustainable energy lighting products. We would urge anyone considering the purchase of lighting stock for off-grid communities to treat Lighting Global’s endorsement as the Gold Standard – anything less just won’t do.
As someone once said of those living off-grid in rural Africa, “These people are too poor to afford bad quality”.