Solar Sister is an award-winning social enterprise advancing women’s entrepreneurship to bring off-grid electricity and clean cooking solutions to underserved communities across Sub-Saharan Africa. Neha Misra, Solar Sister’s Co-Founder and Chief Collaboration Officer shares insights on why achieving the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All objectives and women’s empowerment are intrinsically tied together.
Energy prosperity has a female face. Every day, women around the world face the worst consequences of not having modern energy access. They spend more than 40 per cent of family income on inefficient and dangerous kerosene and candles for lighting. They walk long distances to collect firewood. They deliver babies in darkness, and they toil in smoky kitchens and venture out at night to use outdoor latrines without adequate light. Girls are left behind without educational opportunities due to the lack of reliable light. Ensuring that women and girls have energy access is not just about women’s rights—it's a fundamental human rights issue. A number of quantitative and qualitative studies have shown that clean energy access is linked with better chances for girls to complete primary education and for women to earn better wages, while it also contributes to a reduction in gender-based violence. Ability to power mobile phones means better connectivity and better business opportunities.
What clean energy access can do for women is only half the story. There is a strong case for what women can do to expand clean energy access and to fight on the front lines against climate change. This is where Solar Sister is leading the way.
Empowering Women to meet the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) Objectives
Solar Sister is eradicating energy poverty by empowering women through clean energy-driven economic opportunities. Solar Sister’s market-based and woman-centred programme is bringing off-grid solar and clean cooking technologies to underserved communities across sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s look at the multiple ways in which Solar Sister is strengthening women’s role in meeting the SE4ALL objectives:
1. Empowering women as leaders. As a women-led social enterprise, Solar Sister has affirmed high-level support for advancing gender equality on the road to ensuring universal energy access. Katherine Lucey, Founder and CEO of Solar Sister, was recognized as Schwab Social Entrepreneur at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town in June 2015. Over 57 per cent of Solar Sister’s board is comprised of women leaders from the finance, technology and clean energy sectors. Besides promoting women’s leadership internally, Solar Sister is a key global advocate for bridging the gender technology divide. Solar Sister was a featured solution at the UN Women and UN Global Compact’s 2015 Annual Women’s Empowerment Principles event. Our organization supports the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP)—a partnership initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact—which provides a framework to help the private sector focus on key elements integral to promoting gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.1
2. Empowering women through local workforce development. Solar Sister empowers women through local green jobs and workforce development across its growing operations in Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa, and Nigeria in West Africa. Over 86 per cent of Solar Sister’s staff is comprised of women energy managers, trainers, business coaches and technicians. Scaling up these efforts to provide jobs and advancement opportunities for women in the clean tech sector is vital for meeting the SE4ALL objectives. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s 2015 Annual Review, renewable energy-related employment is presently low in Africa, except in a few countries, such as Kenya, Morocco and South Africa, where deployment growth is creating domestic value and jobs.2 General Electric’s White Paper on “Building Strong Workforces to Power Africa’s Growth” highlights the need to build the pipeline of skills needed to successfully leverage the technological advances of tomorrow, enabling “The Future of Work in Africa”.3 This need is very evident in the sustainable energy sector, and is an area in which Solar Sister is playing a vital role.
3. Empowering women as clean energy entrepreneurs. Solar Sister’s business model is focused on building a women-driven last mile distribution network to bring energy access to underserved communities. Solar Sister recruits, trains and mentors African women to build sustainable businesses selling portable solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and clean cookstoves. Solar Sister entrepreneurs are equipped with business in a bag kit, business and technology skills and the confidence to succeed. Women use their social networks to provide the most effective distribution channel to rural and hard-to-reach customers. Sisterhood is an important aspect of Solar Sister’s mission. It means providing a safe space where women come together to share their challenges and successes by using technology to earn a living and meet local energy needs. Since the women are firmly rooted in their communities, they become a trusted source of post-point of sale customer care. This sustained service is vital for building customer’s confidence in clean energy technologies. As Hannah Owot, a Solar Sister Entrepreneur in Uganda says, “I do my work. I set my goals. I determine my success. I do not wait for anyone else to do it for me. I am a Solar Sister Entrepreneur. For me the sky is not the limit, it is only the beginning.”
4. Empowering women as consumers. Solar Sister Entrepreneurs benefit firsthand as users of clean energy and use the power of personal testimony to educate their communities on the benefits of the solar and clean cooking solutions they sell. For example, Solar Sister Valentina Tiem in Tanzania is supporting better education for her grandchildren who are now able to study longer with their quality solar lights. Solar Sister Florence’s customer Teddy in Uganda is a tailor who has been able to grow her business thanks to more productive hours with solar home solution. Solar Sister Iniobong Okon in Nigeria is a retired nurse who set up a maternity clinic. Iniobong sees solar and clean cooking technology as a way to improve health-care services for women in her community. These are just a few of the many stories of the transformational, positive impact that Solar Sister’s clean energy access initiatives have had on health, education, local livelihoods and a better environment.
Partnerships for change
Solar Sister has a collaborative approach for scaling its gender-inclusive solutions to make the Sustainable Energy for All vision a reality. On the implementation side, this means joining hands with local women’s groups such as the Mothers’ Union of Uganda and conservation organizations such as the African Wildlife Foundation. On the technology front, Solar Sister partners with the world’s leading clean technology manufacturers. Solar Sister is the World Bank’s Lighting Global Associate, which means that Solar Sister’s product portfolio is made up of products that meet the highest quality standards to best fit the needs of customers across rural Africa. Solar Sister is working closely with the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA) to scale up its impact and share best practices on building a gender-inclusive sustainable energy sector. In the clean cooking sector, Solar Sister is partnering with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to apply the innovative human-centred design principles to empower women entrepreneurs. Solar Sister is working with the International Center for Research on Women to compile evidence on the importance of women’s role in clean energy value chains.
Way forward and call to action
Solar Sister is demonstrating the importance of women-led innovation in supporting the Sustainable Energy for All objectives related to universal energy access and renewable energy. At present, Solar Sister has created a path for 2,000 women in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria to become active and knowledgeable participants in a sustainable, market-based clean energy distribution network, bringing clean energy access to over a quarter of a million people. At the 2nd Annual Sustainable Energy for All Forum held in New York in 2015, Solar Sister committed to expand its network to 5,000 women entrepreneurs over the next five years and to bring clean energy to over 10 million in sub-Saharan Africa. As it significantly grows its impact in the coming years, Solar Sister invites opportunities to partner with UN Chronicle readers.
1. Solar Sister. Women’s Empowerment Principles: Voice of Solar Sister, 6 April 2015. Available from: http://www.solarsister.org/blog/womens-empowerment-principles-voice-of-solar-sister.
2. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Renewable Energy and Jobs. Annual Review 2015 (Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, 2015), p.3. Available from: http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_RE_Jobs_Annual_Review_2015.pdf.
3. Marco Annunziata, Shlomi Kramer , “Building strong workforces to power Africa’s growth. The future of work in Africa”, White Papers series (General Electric: July 2015). Available from: http://files.publicaffairs.geblogs.com/ideas-lab/files/pdfs/building-strong-workforces-to-power-africas-growth.pdf?utm_content=buffercd6d2&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.