Solar power to the poor people:
Using innovative clusters to develop business models for technology transfer

Tomas Kjellqvist, project manager, Erik von Bahr, R&D project funded by Sida

This project proposes to improve the productive uses of energy in innovative clusters with solar energy installations adapted to their needs. The project will draw on previous experience of income generation through almost 75 innovative clusters in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. These 75 clusters are based on agglomerations of small and medium sized enterprises with a total geographical spread encompassing both urban and rural surroundings. Each cluster consist of a number of firms that are linked in a production chain or operate in the same trade, but cooperate to achieve joint competitiveness. They involve people in different productive functions throughout the value chains, and we find these people in very different socio-economic situations. Investing in solar technology for clusters would show long-term social and economic effects as the involved individuals of all social strata could increase their incomes over time.

The clusters can provide opportunities to test and improve solar energy technology in real world applications as they represent a wide range of trade areas.  Working with clusters means that there are opportunities to replicate solutions and to find advantages of scale. The cluster members have acquired a basic understanding of entrepreneurship and an openness to technological change. As a result they would be prepared to adopt solar technologies and adapt them to their needs. They have good experiences of participation in capacity building programs. Besides opportunities to try out solar energy technologies the clusters could develop  adapted business models to apply for loans to construct experimental sites. These sites will be an arena to define research for further development of solar technology and for improving mechanisms for technology transfer.

In this case, technology transfer and capacity building requires a close collaboration between the cluster entrepreneurs as end-users, solar technology firms as providers of technology, and universities as providers of training, expertise and new knowledge. Policymakers at national and municipal levels need to be involved to at an early stage to facilitate and give political, and possibly financial, support to the activities. A constellation of these actors is commonly referred to as a “Triple Helix”. The actors are in a continuous dialogue to solve problems and transcend barriers with joint efforts. The Triple Helix requires that the respective actors join in to share their own specific knowledge and networks, and are prepared to learn things of use to their own activity area from the others. If such trust is established, the effects of the project are more likely to be sustainable. Each actor could also use his/her network for dissemination of the results, which provides for replication of approaches and solutions in a wider context.