By Viveka Jani for Twisted Tiara
Women entrepreneurs from Africa are helping increase access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa through an innovative off-grid renewable energy model. They are literally helping brighten the world and lighting the path for more women in the renewable energy sector.
Energy, Development and Sustainability
Access to energy is one of the key indicators of national prosperity, development, security and well-being. However, around one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia don’t have proper access to electricity. This represents a significant barrier to progress and overall wellbeing over 14% of the world’s population. It affects all development aspects including education, health, livelihoods, poverty eradication and gender equality.
Last mile energy access is still a problem in the 21st century and it’s not even limited to just rural areas. Those without electricity are either remotely located, poor, or both. Informal urban settlements usually lack the required transmission and distribution infrastructure. Deciding energy distribution on a local scale requires considering various factors. For remote households, extending the central grid can be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, installing reliable off-grid systems can be financially challenging, as they require high initial investments.
Access to energy has been deemed a basic requirement for sustainable development by the UN. Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG) is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Taking all of this into consideration plus the clean energy debate, it becomes apparent that centralised fossil-fuel based energy systems are not feasible for meeting the last mile connectivity challenge sustainably. This opens up the space for innovative renewable and clean energy solutions to bridge the energy access gap.
Improving Access to Energy and Gender Inequality
In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 600 million people lack access to electricity and over 700 million have to rely on harmful fossil fuels. A social enterprise named Solar Sister is trying to solve this problem of energy poverty. It is shouldering the responsibility to deliver sustainable and clean energy in rural and impoverished regions of Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and South Sudan. It combines off-grid portable solar technology with a women-driven direct sales network to provide clean and reliable electricity to last mile communities.
Solar Sister works through a nexus of local women who receive training for business, technology and leadership skills to set up sustainable clean energy businesses in their communities. Solar Sister started in 2009 by training ten women entrepreneurs in Uganda. Ten years later, they have created a network of over 4000 women entrepreneurs bringing solar power to more than 1.6 million Africans. The trained recruits are provided with durable and affordable solar-powered products and clean stoves. They sell these directly to people in rural and impoverished areas without electricity. The ‘partner’ women are empowered and enabled to become entrepreneurs to deliver clean energy directly to homes in energy-deficit communities in their region. In turn, they become financially independent and gain a position of respect in their communities.
In addition to contributing to the renewable energy movement and helping increase electricity access in developing communities, this women-centric model is doing wonders for women, most of who are from underprivileged households. Women who were not given a say in household decisions earlier are now contributing to the household income. They are garnering respect from family and community members alike, and becoming confident community leaders and role models. Women who might not have had the opportunity to get a formal education, now learn skills in marketing, financial management, communication and technical understanding of these energy products.
Light, Hope, Opportunity
Solar Sister works on the belief that women are an integral part of the clean energy solution. More than 80% of its workforce comprises of women, including all of the top management positions. I had the privilege of meeting some of these Solar Sister entrepreneurs in Tanzania. Their stories and beaming faces were proof enough of the positive impact being part of this initiative has had on these women. The enterprise’s motto “Light, Hope, Opportunity” is clearly reflected in them. Despite certain challenges of travelling to remote locations and dealing with reluctant consumers, these women are quite happy and satisfied with their work. Their efforts have allowed them to improve their lives and the lives of the communities they cater to, who have lived far too long in the dark. You can read some the impact stories here.
Grassroot Development and Community Building
The initiative has also benefited education in rural communities. Over 90% of parents reporting an improvement in their children’s academic performance thanks to solar light. Moreover, families who switched to clean, smoke-free cook-stoves reported significantly improvement in the health of women and children. Every dollar invested in a Solar Sister entrepreneur generates over USD 48 in economic benefits in the first year of participation. In calculating the benefit, we include the earned income for the woman entrepreneur and the cash savings generated for her customers. In other words, at one-tenth the cost of traditional solar home systems, customers are benefiting from increased savings, extended working hours, better indoor air quality and extended study time for children.
Women in the Energy Sector
A report released earlier this year by the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) shows that women occupy 32% of the workforce in the renewable energy sector. There are several barriers which either prevent the entry of women in this workforce or make it less appealing for them. These include preconceived perceptions of gender roles, social norms, prevailing hiring practices, lack of gender targets, limited opportunities for training and skill development, and discouraging workplace policies. The report also goes on to discuss how strengthening the role of women in renewable energy through better education and opportunities would boost progress towards SDGs on energy, gender equality, health and education, among others. Something that de-centralised models like that of Solar Sister have already proven true.
With the proper capacity, women have the capability to become crucial managers, contributors and beneficiaries of renewable energy projects. Failure to recognize their full potential will only result in lost opportunities to achieve multiple developmental targets. Increasing women’s participation in policy dialogues, opening up the renewable energy workforce, and tapping new opportunities through increasing women’s participation as investors and entrepreneurs, will both support the effectiveness of the renewable energy initiatives and also pave the way towards a more gender inclusive energy sector.
Preservers of the Planet is a series dedicated to women led movements or organisations that are trying to solve the environmental issues in their community. We hope to educate the masses about women from varying backgrounds around the world who are stepping up to protect our environmental rights. Through this series, we aim to highlight the journey of these women who have come up with innovative solutions to global problems.