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Preservers of the Planet: Hey, Solar Sister!

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 the overall well-being of 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 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 on 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 centralized 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.

Women Empowerment

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 enterprise’s motto “Light, Hope, Opportunity” is clearly reflected in the work and the increasing number of these women.

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 whom 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.

Grassroot Development and Community Building

The initiative has also benefited education in rural communities. Over 90% of parents report an improvement in their children’s academic performance thanks to solar light. Moreover, families who switched to clean, smoke-free cookstoves reported significant 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 that either prevent the entry of women into 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 toward SDGs on energy, gender equality, health, and education, among others. Something that de-centralized models like that of Solar Sister has already proven true.

Go Girl Power!

EcoDhaga is a women-led, women-run business working towards creating a climate-positive legacy!

We also love promoting and highlighting other women entrepreneurs

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