“Solar Sister has built a women-centered clean energy distribution network because when women act as salespeople, they help reach more rural women, while also economically empowering themselves. Women have strong social networks and are community leaders.”
Foreign aid to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa still face a number of barriers today, which is vastly caused by accessibility issues at a local level. These barriers are what prompted global economist Dambisa Moyo to rename the aid “dead aid”.
With foreign aid unable to reach where it’s meant to, numerous organisations have made it their mission to reach out to communities themselves. Solar Sister is one NGO doing just that.
Solar Sister has an innovative model that is structured to create sustainable and growing investments. It does this by cultivating business skills among female entrepreneurs so they can, in turn, run successful, independent and clean energy businesses. Abigail Mackey, Solar Sister’s Grants and Impact Manager, told the IPF the that they aim to create a positive ripple effect through empowering female entrepreneurs.
“Solar Sister has built a women-centered clean energy distribution network,” Abigail said. “Because when women act as salespeople, they help reach more rural women, while also economically empowering themselves. Women have strong social networks and are community leaders.”
“Investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”
Small organisations making the biggest impact
Abigail joined Solar Sister just over a year ago, after working for Power Africa, a project by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to increase access to electricity in Africa by adding 60 million new electricity connections.
The 23-year-old said:
“During my time at Power Africa, Solar Sister was always brought up as a shining example of how small organisations are making a big impact on energy poverty on the ground through focusing on women.”
Solar Sister began with only 10 entrepreneurs in 2010. Since then, they have recruited, trained and mentored more than 2,650 clean energy entrepreneurs who have gone on to deliver solar and clean cooking solutions to more than 700,000 beneficiaries across Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania.
Many Solar Sister entrepreneurs start by selling their products to their friends, families and neighbours, before then branching out to other customers. Entrepreneurs purchase products from Solar Sister and then re-sell them at a mark up, earning an income in the process.
The majority of Solar Sister sales are portable, off-grid products, such as small solar lanterns and solar mobile chargers, which allow consumers to replace kerosene lamps and other less efficient forms of energy.
Why empower women with solar energy?
In sub-saharan Africa, women are typically the ones in the household responsible for fulfilling energy needs, such as cooking and purchasing kerosene. This is where Solar Sister comes in. The organisation establishes distribution channels for clean energy to meet the needs of female customers.
Roughly 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity and 2.7 billion people do not have access to clean cookstoves or modern fuels. More than 95% of these people are in sub-Saharan Africa or parts of developing Asia, with at least 80% in rural areas.
“If energy poverty was a person, chances are high that it will be the face of a woman working in a dark and smokey kitchen, or a young girl who walks long distances to collect firewood, taking time away from studies and putting her at risk of sexual assault.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), roughly 4 million premature annual deaths – mainly children and women – are due to pulmonary ailments linked directly to household air pollution. This is caused by the use of biomass as a source of energy and kerosene lamps. In addition, maternal healthcare, such as pre-natal care and nighttime deliveries, suffers due to the absence of basic electricity.
Furthermore, inefficient cookstoves and household energy use pollute the environment significantly and exacerbate global warming. Up to 25% of the world’s black carbon emissions come from burning solid fuels, such as wood and coal for household energy needs. As much as 34% of wood harvested for fuel is unsustainable, contributing to deforestation and bringing about subsequent ramifications.
Abigail explained that this is why women were being empowered with clean energy:
“As the primary consumers of household energy, women are critical to the successful adaptation of clean energy technology solutions. We believe that investing in women is a prerequisite for large-scale adoption of clean energy technologies at a grassroots level.”
Efficient cookstoves and fuels can reduce fuel use by 30-60% and black carbon emissions by 50-90%. Thus, Solar Sister is not only working to promote sustainability by pursuing environment-friendly energy, but also striving to bridge the gender and technology divide in some of the hardest to reach communities in Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania. Most of these communities are energy poor and see people living on or below the poverty line, with access to electricity below 5%.
“It is this gender-inclusive systems approach, combined with an enterprise-based model to bring a sustainable livelihood opportunity to address energy poverty that makes Solar Sister unique. This means investment in women’s leadership, creation of green jobs and support for women’s enterprise to ensure that the future is filled with light, hope and opportunity.”
What next for Solar Sister?
Solar Sister hopes to inspire other organisations to adopt similar women-centred distribution models. Abigail said that despite the lack of available research linking women and clean energy entrepreneurship, Solar Sister is working to prove that investing in women gives the biggest returns and leads to a larger impact in communities.
“Our longer term goal is to positively disrupt the energy sector by being a living example of the power of including women as agents of change in the green energy economy and showing that it is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”