Why more women should be empowered to deliver affordable, clean energy to underserved communities

Photo credit: Greenlight Planet

By Naomi Kioi

Jenifer Achieng steps onto a stool to reach the iron sheet roofing of her house. The Sun King solar panel rests on the roof every day. She holds it with one hand, explaining how it has changed life in her home, located several kilometres from the national electricity grid, at Kabonyo village in Kisumu County, Kenya.

“Initially, I used to spend a lot of money buying kerosene for my lantern. Sometimes, I did not have the money and was forced to use firewood for light to do my night household chores,” she says.

Jenifer, a 65-year-old granny of five, purchased her solar product from Vaseria, a commission-based sales agent for Sun King. She reminisces the day Vaseria approached her to buy a solar product, and mentions that it was her trust and confidence in Vaseria that helped her make the purchase decision.

Jennifer is one of many women who play a leading role in their households’ energy consumption behaviour. Yet the reality is that in most rural scenarios, they also have the least resources to afford energy, even as they face the greatest need for it.

Energy inefficiency and pollution also have a detrimental effect on women’s health. According to the World Health Organisation, household air pollution is responsible for four million premature deaths annually around the world.

At the same time, women's participation in the workforce is a critical issue for emerging economies. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the unemployment rate for women is 6.2 percent, while for men it is 5.6 percent, as indicated in the Powering Jobs Census 2019, published by Power for All.

While women actively contribute to all facets of the off-grid solar sector and are uniquely impacted by solar energy products and services, only 27 percent of the total Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) jobs in the off-grid solar sector are filled by women. We need more women like Vaseria at all levels of the value chain, actively participating in the sector.

Why are there such few women in the energy sector?

A recent IRENA report noted that within this group, women are disproportionately represented in administrative positions. Similarly, perceptions of gender roles that limit women’s access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills perpetuate the cycle of their low presence in these fields.

Another reason behind the lack of female representation is the fact that they spend a disproportionate amount of time on household tasks. This makes balancing work and family a challenge for many women, especially during their childbearing years. The scenario translates to time poverty for many women, particularly those in developing countries. As such, they are not able to fully participate in the economy and gain the economic benefits, owing to responsibilities such as cleaning, collecting water and fuel, cooking, and caregiving.

The need for equal representation at all levels

Women are often key actors and drivers of change and can influence the behaviour of the family, community and entire future generations on energy use and other environmental activities. But, they are often left out of decision-making and have restricted access to energy technologies, employment opportunities and finance. As key protagonists switching to low-carbon energy, women need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and financing to implement such measures.

Likewise, the energy sector needs more effort in terms of a gender-balanced workforce. Women working in the energy sector tend to lack access to support networks, role models and champions to help advance their career as well as public and company policies to help them realise their goals.

On the other hand, the progress and growth within the off-grid solar sector cannot be undermined.

Currently, there are several business models in the energy sector, and especially in the off-grid segment, that involve women. In fact, most of these models have women spearheading the mission of global rural energy access across Africa and Asia.

At Greenlight Planet, we design, distribute and finance more than 100,000 Sun King solutions per month to households around the world through our networks of more than 10,000 direct sales agents in seven countries (India, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda).

In Kenya alone, women constitute more than 50 percent of Greenlight Planet’s Sun King local agent workforce. These entrepreneurs are trained to educate, deliver and earn incentives, which in turn gives them an opportunity to gather additional income to provide for themselves as well as their children.

The barriers women face in the energy sector are similar to those they encounter in other non-traditional occupations in industrialised countries. Yet, many studies have shown that greater gender equality in such sectors of the economy will bring economic and social benefits to all. Thus, it is necessary to engage decision-makers in both the public and private sectors to work towards removing obstacles in the way of gender equality. This includes the identification of best practices and sharing of experiences in areas such as employment data, career programmes, and awards initiatives.

Building an ecosystem for clean energy access through rural entrepreneurship

There is no doubt that reaching women and providing them with access to energy is essential to any poverty reduction effort. A collaborative effort from all stakeholders within the industry and sectors is needed to serve the underserved population with affordable energy access. Local governments, product companies, financiers and distributors need to come together to solve the problem of lack of sustainable energy access.

Creation of last-mile distribution models by women, for women

Companies like Solar Sister, partner with product companies such as Greenlight Planet, to employ and work with women, who deliver affordable energy products to households that are far to reach. This not only gives them an opportunity to take charge and emerge as mini-entrepreneurs, but to also earn additional income that can be used for their children’s education and other household needs.

The women-centric “last mile” distribution model for affordable clean energy technologies integrates women in both the supply and demand sides of a thriving grassroots green economy. It combines the best of an enterprise development model with a women’s empowerment system. Starting with almost nothing or a small energy business, many of these women go on to become social leaders in their communities. They are role models for other women. They showcase how women can run successful businesses at regional as well as international levels, and negotiate and advocate for their interests. At the same time, this market-based innovation brings clean energy to rural customers’ doorsteps, where traditional distribution channels have simply not reached.

It is evident that women are the main beneficiaries of solar products used in the household, and once introduced to clean energy products by other women in their communities, they become educators and evangelists for clean energy.

As Queen Rania of Jordan once said, “After all, educating a woman is educating a family.”

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Naomi is the General Manager for Global Marketing and Digital Business at Greenlight Planet

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