Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE)

Solar lanterns in Uganda

MIT-USAID program releases pioneering evaluation of solar lanterns in Uganda
Lauren McKown, MIT D-Lab

When a person lives on less than $2 a day — as some 2.7 billion people around the world do — there isn’t room for a product like a solar lantern or a water filter to fail.

It’s a challenge development agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and consumers themselves face every day: With so many products on the market, how do you choose the right one?

Now MIT researchers have released a report that could help answer that question through a new framework for technology evaluation. Their report — titled “Experimentation in Product Evaluation: The Case of Solar Lanterns in Uganda, Africa” — details the first experimental evaluations designed and implemented by the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported program led by a multidisciplinary team of faculty, staff, and students.

Evaluating solar lanterns in Uganda

In summer 2013, a team of MIT faculty and students set off for western Uganda to conduct CITE’s evaluation of solar lanterns. Researchers conducted hundreds of surveys with consumers, suppliers, manufacturers, and nonprofits to evaluate 11 locally available solar lantern models.

To assess each product’s suitability, researchers computed a ratings score from 0 to 100 based on how the product’s attributes and features fared. “Attributes” included characteristics inherent to solar lanterns, such as brightness, run time, and time to charge. “Features” included less-central characteristics, such as a lantern’s ability to charge a cellphone.

The importance of cellphone charging was a surprising and noteworthy finding, Sanyal says.

“One of the things that stuck with me was that [consumers] were most concerned with whether or not the solar lantern charged their cellphone. It was a feature we never expected would be so important,” Sanyal says. “For some, having connections may be more valuable than having light.”

Learning from partnerships

CITE worked with USAID to select solar lanterns as the product family for its first evaluation. Sanyal says evaluating solar lanterns allowed CITE to learn from USAID’s existing partnership with Solar Sister, a social enterprise that distributes solar lanterns in Uganda, a country where few people have access to light after dark.
CITE researchers also worked closely with Jeffrey Asher, a former technical director at Consumer Reports, to learn from an existing product-evaluation model.

Evaluating products in a laboratory at MIT or Consumer Reports is much different than evaluating them in rural Uganda, but both are important, says Asher, who is a co-author of the CITE report.

“Consumer Reports’ greatest challenge has been evaluating products that are currently in the U.S. marketplace,” Asher says. “CITE has found that, in developing countries, we have to be even more nimble to keep up with an ever-changing market.”