In this blog post, we explore the lessons learnt so far from the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition, whose first stage ended in January.
This blog post was co-authored by Makena Ireri, Manager of Ideas to Impact's energy access innovation prizes and Programme Manager at Energy 4 Impact, and Lorenza Geronimo, Ideas to Impact Communications Manager, based at IMC Worldwide.
The first stage of the Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition, under our energy access prize theme, aimed to encourage, for the first time, the development of energy-efficient fridges that are affordable and suitable for poor communities in off-grid areas.
After undergoing lab testing, the winners of the energy efficiency and overall value innovation prizes were revealed alongside best-in-class products in five size categories at the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo in Hong Kong in January. The 19 best products have made it to the next phase, field testing, which will take place in Uganda and will result in the award of the appropriate design and user experience innovation prize.
The competition is now halfway through, which provides us with the opportunity to take stock of what has worked well (click here to learn more about the competition's six key achievements), the main challenges we faced and what we have learnt.
Primary challenges and how we approached them
The off-grid cooling industry is new and there are few known market players. This made it hard for us to target the right solvers. Meanwhile, leaving the pool of contestants too open-ended can reduce the chances that the appliances developed will be appropriate for target consumers, poor off-grid communities in our case. We blazed a new trail as we discovered these solvers and pushed them to come forward with their ideas and develop them, which will pave the way for future prizes.
How did we address this?
We approached organisations in the solar power business as we thought this would be a good starting point, given that off-grid communities tend to rely on solar power. Moreover, we worked with US NGO CLASP, which had contacts with manufacturers of energy-efficient products. We also had many one-to-one meetings to understand whether fridges in particular was something these firms were already manufacturing or considering to manufacture.
While we received most applications from high-income countries, such as Hong Kong and the US, around 15% of applicants came from lower-middle-income countries: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Swaziland. However, fridges developed here did not meet technical requirements and failed lab testing. This gave us food for thought.
Unlike grants, prizes attract unusual solvers from low-income countries. Contestants need to invest money, time and energy upfront with no guarantee that they will win the final cash prize. While this commitment strengthens their credibility in the eyes of investors and potential users, these requirements can also prevent some organisations from participating. Unusual solvers tend to face the greatest financial and capacity barriers, which is one of the dilemmas of innovation prizes.
In the Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition, we covered the shipping costs and test fees that a participant needed to pay to send its fridges to the Netherlands for lab testing. This subsidy was means-tested and it allowed us to level the playing field among contestants and keep the pool of solvers as diverse as possible.
However, financial availability is only part of the problem. While in this competition technical support was not really an issue, it can be in innovation prizes. Capacity building support, especially with organisations from low-income countries, is something we will take in consideration for the next competition, the Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge, which will launch later this month to identify the world’s most innovative cold chain technologies appropriate in off-grid areas.
Based on our experience so far, we explore below some must-dos of a successful innovation competition:
- At the design stage, set a clear and specific objective that can be shared by everyone. The aim of our competition was to encourage the development of energy-efficient fridges that are suitable for poor communities in off-grid areas. The innovation prize’s three categories (energy efficiency, overall value and appropriate design and user experience) helped to make the goal specific enough.
- Early engagement with potential solvers is needed before you finalise your prize design so you understand their incentives to participate. Map their limits as well so you can anticipate what could potentially cut them out of the competition, e.g. lack of publicly available information, and fix that early on.
- Be flexible. Some applicants might have ‘crazy’ ideas, but they could still fit the bill. Keep an open mind!
- Set the right incentives. For many contestants, money is not an incentive to participate. On the other hand, the opportunity to see their products tested in other countries which they could not reach on their own, and compare it to their competitors, can be a very strong motivator. Other non-monetary incentives include the visibility and the media buzz that comes with a prize compared to a grant and the credibility that rigorous lab and field testing creates in the eyes of investors and users.
These are just some of the lessons we learnt, which we have used to inform the next stage of the competition, the Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge. Stay tuned for its official launch!