The disheartening status of solar photovoltaic modules in Malawi, southern Africa:
Although access to solar and other renewable energy technologies is changing the way we create and consume electricity, it seems that not everyone is getting the same level of opportunity. In Malawi, and other places in Africa, the renewable energy markets are flooded with an extraordinarily poor quality of imported solar PV equipment. The financial burden of early product failures on this disadvantaged population has the undesirable effect of constraining the rate of electrification.
In the predominately rural Northern Region of Malawi, the free market is working to combat energy poverty. Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world; the World Bank has reported that less than 10% of the overall population and less than 1% of the rural population has access to the grid, which is often unreliable and intermittent.
It is for this reason that consumer demand is strong for technologies that can generate off-grid electricity such as solar rooftop PV, despite the significant upfront capital cost. Retailers throughout Mzuzu, the third-largest city in Malawi with a population of only 175,000, carry a wide variety of solar technology products including solar panels, LED lights, batteries, inverters and charge controllers to help meet a portion of the growing demand for alternative power.
A cursory inspection of the inventory of solar panels for sale in Mzuzu uncovers catastrophic issues which will almost certainly affect product performance and reliability. Observations of the typical quality issues for the solar industry are pervasive including cracked cells, bad solder joints, delamination of the module layers and improper or non-existent labelling. More troubling observations involve deliberate deception of consumers by, for example, mixing real cells with fake cells in order to sell larger modules, which appear more valuable (refer to Image 1).
Statistics to accurately express the depth of market penetration of these sub-standard products are not available at this time, but the problem does appear to be widespread. Identified defects are consistent with similar reports which have surfaced in other African countries including Tanzania and Zimbabwe. This is not limited to solar panels: a 2015 Schneider Electric survey of 11 African countries found that counterfeits represent 40 to 80% of the market of electrical products .
Fake cells on the left, real cells on the right, together in one panel. The fake cells are evident by the shadow of the paper edge in the white space between the printed images of cells. The tabbing ribbon on the left is also clearly two-dimensional and is not made of real metal.
The current position
A combination of market forces, lack of industry oversight and human factors has contributed to this problem. The market for solar PV in Malawi is defined by the population it serves; due to the high upfront cost of solar systems most Malawians can’t afford to buy standard full-sized solar modules. One of the advantages of solar PV technology is that its modularity allows modules to be made at virtually any size and rated power. Most PV modules sold in Malawi are for small residential (e.g. rooftop) systems between 5W and 150W, whereas a full-sized module is typically 250W or greater. This is significant because world-leading Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have typically focused on optimising their products for large arrays of full-sized modules for markets in the developed world. This has created an opportunity for smaller OEMs (with potentially lower quality standards) to create smaller modules for developing world markets.
Large OEMs aspire to deliver only the highest quality products and therefore reject broken and defective cells during module production. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with fabricating a module from reworked cells when it is done properly; defective areas can be cut away and the remaining good cell fragments can be used. Making modules with smaller cell fragments is often done deliberately to achieve a higher output voltage in small form-factor modules and can be done with minimal impact to product quality.
Problems arise when cell fragments aren’t properly processed, potentially resulting in short circuits, electrical discontinuities or unconnected regions of cells as in the example in Image 2 below. Poor module design is also a potential pitfall, where cell fragments of varying size are incorporated together in such a way that the smaller fragments limit the overall performance of the module. Most of the observed quality problems in the modules for sale in Malawi involve improper re-use of cell fragments in mini-modules originating from smaller OEMs.
Several institutions in Malawi are already responsible for regulating the industry, but their coordination and effectiveness is weak, resulting in the inability to assure the quality of solar products that are reaching consumers. The Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) has a mandate which includes the development of standards and testing of products to ensure they comply with any law relating to standards of quality . The 2003 Malawi Energy Policy outlined the formation of the Test and Training Centre for Renewable Energy Technologies (TCRET) at Mzuzu University with funding from the United Nations Development Programme.
One of its directives is the provision of testing and certification services in collaboration with MBS for renewable energy products. To date this facility remains idle, partially due to a lack of funding for equipment and testing services and partially due to the lack of enforcement of government regulations. Currently there are no legal frameworks or robust product regulations in place which MBS can use in order to enforce penalties to those who are importing defective or falsely advertised solar products. MBS has already adopted an international test standard for PV modules but it doesn’t require documented proof of compliance with this standard for solar products imported into the country.
Dr Collen Zalengera, who is the Head of the Department of Energy Studies at Mzuzu University and oversees TCRET, is concerned about the ubiquity of low quality solar modules and notes that “even though TCRET is in Mzuzu, these [fraudulent] modules are for sale right here on our doorstep.” He goes on to say “[the availability of these modules] puts the renewable energy industry in disrepute.”
Complementary to the activities of the MBS, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) requires any business that is importing, selling, installing or maintaining renewable energy technologies to be licensed, in an attempt to regulate the quality of goods and services. However in practice companies are failing to register. Companies are avoiding paying the licensing fees in part because the perceived risk of noncompliance is low, and also because the advantage of becoming certified is not seen. Prior to 2010 MERA, was involved with inspecting solar products at the border, and providing MERA certified companies tax exempt status on renewable energy imports. Since then tax exemption is given to all such imports without this oversight. Wilfred Kasakula, Senior Engineer of renewable energy at MERA comments that in the past retailers importing good quality products “… were well protected by the system, but now it is tough for them to compete; the pressure from [cheap low quality products] is too much.”
According to the World Bank Education and Data Centre, only 7% of Malawians aged 15-24 have completed secondary education. A consequence of low levels of education and limited access to electricity is that a fairly small percentage of the population is well equipped to understand solar PV technology enough to identify defects or fraudulent modules. Consumers aren’t aware that a quality solar module will include international certification markings (e.g. IEC, UL, TUV) and that large OEMs provide product warranties for 25 years. In addition, it appears that culturally the people of Malawi don’t tend to return faulty products to the store for a repair or refund. Consumers are accustomed to the ubiquity of low quality products and don’t feel empowered to complain to anyone like the retailer, the OEM or the government.
Addressing the issue
The cost of sub-standard quality modules in Malawi is significantly higher than those found in developed markets, which are served by large OEMs. For example, a 150W module in Mzuzu retails for approximately 90,000 Malawian Kwacha ($127), which in today’s dollars translates into roughly $0.85/W. By comparison, in South Africa a 240W Canadian Solar (Tier 1 manufacturer) module can be bought from a distributer for $0.54/W.
This example compares retail pricing to distributer pricing but it illustrates that it should be possible for consumers in Malawi to access higher quality modules at comparable prices to the incumbent offerings. Although it may be possible that the availability of high quality products will naturally push the lower quality offerings out of the market over time, this process should be accelerated by legislation that enforces consumer protection.
A senior representative at MERA has indicated that a national Renewable Energy Act is currently under development in Malawi, funded by the UNDP. If successfully developed and passed, legislation would allow for action such as prosecution to be taken against those violating the standards that are already in place. Further collaboration between MERA and MBS is also key to fostering a robust Renewable Energy industry. It is up to MERA to request the development of standards from MBS where gaps exist; for example, in product and inspection standards. One approach that MBS could take to mitigate the influx of low quality products could be to start enforcing compliance to their existing solar standard by requiring documented proof of compliance for products at the port of entry.
The Zayed Energy & Ecology Centre (ZEEC) in the Nkhata Bay District of Malawi is working to combat these issues on the ground. ZEEC offers vocational training for solar PV technicians, which includes lessons on identifying quality issues in PV modules. ZEEC has also published a free solar visual inspection manual  on their website for anyone seeking further information on how to identify solar module defects, along with a description of each issue and an indication of severity. The manual includes detailed photos and is written in simple language in the hopes of encouraging widespread circulation.
Gail Swithenbank, the founder and managing director of ZEEC, understands the challenges facing Malawians: “[This issue is] impacting the adoption of solar in Malawi – people save for a year to buy a solar panel and when it stops working people lose confidence in a technology that they desperately need.” ZEEC is targeting industry stakeholders in Malawi while also working with the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC) to make a version of this document available to the international community in the hope that it can be utilized in any market that faces similar quality challenges. Fake and sub-standard quality products aren’t a new phenomenon in Africa – similar quality issues are prevalent with virtually all consumer products.
The problem as it pertains to solar PV is particularly urgent to address because we’re not talking about a typical consumer product – we’re talking about a technology that is enabling widespread electrification in the most rural areas of Africa. This distributed infrastructure is being funded directly by consumers, bypassing the traditional public infrastructure model that has so far failed to serve millions of Africans. Faulty and fraudulent solar modules put an undue financial burden on those who stand to gain the most from electrification.
A combination of strategies are needed that approach these issues from the top-down and from the bottom-up. Top-down actions by the public sector, designed to mature the industry and protect consumers, include writing and enforcing new legislation and regulations targeted at curtailing the supply of sub-standard quality solar products. Bottom up approaches include industry associations, who need to provide recognizable value promoting the technology and elevating the integrity of the industry. Private sector-led efforts to empower and educate stakeholders across the PV equipment supply chain can also seek to be influential, such as what is being done by ZEEC.
In addition to these approaches, awareness and partnership from the international community can have a positive impact in helping to shape and support the maturation of the solar industry in Africa.