Lessons Learned – How Trend Solar overcame the digital illiteracy barrier in Tanzania and acquired customers

According to the Rural Energy Agency (REA), more than 17,000 schools in Tanzania do not have access to energy – impacting enrolment, lesson quality, access to educational resources and teacher retention. Such detrimental effects on formal education only exacerbate the widespread problem of child illiteracy.

With funding from PREO, solar system distributors Trend Solar is tackling this issue by pioneering a solar home system packaged with user-friendly smartphones and an affordable data-bundle for low-income rural families. Free educational content from Ubongo is accessed by children via a smartphone app which helps further child literacy progress in off-grid regions. Ubongo creates and distributes locally relevant educational programs to help improve early numeracy, literacy, gender equality and digital inclusivity amongst school-age children.

The coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected school attendance – so it is no surprise that Trend Solar is witnessing heightened interest in remote home-based learning amidst periodic school closures. Despite the difficult social and economic context created by the pandemic, the project has reached more than 150 households in Tanzania but faced challenges when trying to onboard existing and new customers to adopt a new, free of charge, educational smartphone app designed for off-grid kids. PREO has interviewed Trend Solar’s COO Joe Segal to find out more.

1. What were the initial strategies used to acquire customers?

Initially, we recruited our customers to the Ubongo programme through a series of bulk SMS which sent them the Google Play Store link to download the app. Additional follow up would be completed by phone calls to help walk customers through the process if challenges were faced.

2. What were the challenges faced by the project in acquiring customers and why were the initially planned strategies not as productive as expected?

Many customers did not have an adequate level of digital literacy to download the apps without being walked through the process by a customer services representative. We also found many customers did not understand the messages sent and some of those that did understand the message still needed further support to access the Ubongo app. Finally, while we were trying to provide data bundles for the customers, the cost of data increased in price by several times.

3. What alternative and revised customer acquisition strategies were used to achieve customer acquisition targets? How did the project overcome the barrier of limited digital and smartphone literacy?

Realising the need for us to complete installations in person, we arranged two local workshops to which we invited our customers through both text messages and phone calls in order to make sure the opportunity was properly understood. While 80 customers indicated their interest to attend, less than 30 arrived at the events.

After this setback, we decided to complete the app installations by recruiting agents to set up more local workshops and conduct homes visits. This was a costly, time-consuming and inefficient solution, but it was identified as a necessary step in order to provide customers with the necessary skillsets for using the Ubongo app. PREO was supportive during this phase of the project and helped us recruit a project coordinator with excellent experience of our sector, our customer demographic to help us navigate some of these challenges with the Trend Solar engineers and customers on the ground.

3. What are your recommendations to similar projects in a comparable context towards gaining customer acceptance and adoption?

For future projects, installation at the point of sale or education during initial interactions with sale agents would be a more productive approach. Additionally, despite the low turnout for our first workshop, driving greater attendance at regular workshops would still deliver a quicker rate of onboarding with around twenty installations a week, resulting in a more productive use of staff time compared to travelling to individual households.

5. What is the scaleup strategy for Trend Solar in improving customer stickiness through partnership with app tech companies?

Trend Solar believes in partnering with a range of app developers to create a more attractive experience for the Trend smartphone. With apps tailored for the needs of rural customers, through providers working on AgriTech, HealthTech, E-Commerce and EduTech solutions, our customers will realise wider financial benefits from owning a smartphone. This will in turn elevate the importance of the system in their household economies and they will therefore prioritise payment for the product ahead of other expenses.

6. What lessons from the PREO project can be used in the scaleup strategy?

One of the key elements of the PREO project was to understand what barriers arise when introducing apps to our off-grid customers. Two key barriers have surfaced and need to be resolved in order to scaleup:

  1. Digital Skills – the low levels of digital literacy have meant that downloads of the apps had to be done in person by our technicians. This ‘in person’ and ‘one-to-one’ dependency needs to be removed and replaced with a ‘one-to-many’ solution. The 2 possibilities we’re exploring for our scaleup strategy include pre-installation of apps at the point of manufacture and remote installation techniques to be developed. However, this solution is still problematic when considering the next point.
  2. Phone Storage – to keep smartphones affordable for the project demographic we are limited in regard to the amount of pre-installed storage. This in conjunction with limited digital skills means that users do not know how to delete large obsolete files from their phones (such as old WhatsApp videos and other unused apps). This means that on many occasions, phones did not have capacity to download our new apps, which again requires one-to-one support from our technicians to free up storage space. Again, the solution we see as most easy to implement is to install apps at the point of manufacture or sale.

7. What economic return will accrue to Trend Solar if the partnerships with app platforms from different sectors can be scaled successfully.

The economic return we would anticipate through partnerships with app platforms are:

  1. Partnership sales: new revenue streams driven through partnership affiliate deals.
  2. Product stickiness: improved customer experience through additional value-added services which in turn support customer retention and repayment propensity.
  3. Attracting new sales: the unique selling point of a suite of productive use applications being a differentiator from other solar home system providers and a demand for this type of service increasing sales.

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