Lack of access to modern forms of energy hampers efforts to reduce poverty. The provision of electricity to off-grid communities is therefore a long-standing developmental goal. Yet, many off-grid electrification projects neglect mid– and long-term operation and maintenance costs. When this is the case, electricity services are unlikely to be affordable to the communities that are the project’s primary target. Here we show that, compared with diesel-powered electricity generation systems, solar photovoltaic systems are more affordable to no less than 36% of the unelectrified populations in East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. We do so by developing geo-referenced estimates of affordability at a high level of resolution (1 km2). The analysis illustrates the differences in affordability that may be found at the subnational level, which underscores that electrification investments should be informed by subnational data.