The sustainable power of women

Economic empowerment of women means energy solutions for more than two million people

This article is published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.

How do you get sustainable energy solutions to more than two million people in the most remote areas — the last mile — of Africa and Asia? And how do you make sure the solutions are really used? The answer is as brilliant as it is simple: appeal to the power of women.

At the most basic level, women are the main providers and users of household energy. At the same time, they are disproportionately affected by the lack of energy and tend to be overlooked as key stakeholders of energy initiatives. When women gain access to quality energy services, this has multiple poverty reduction impacts: on health, income generation, and family.

Another critically important fact is that women can play a central role in expanding energy access to the last mile, which is the greatest challenge we are faced with when aiming for sustainable energy for all.

What women’s empowerment means for renewable energy

“The link between women’s rights and renewable energy is more logical than you might think at first sight,” says Tjarda Muller, Communications Coordinator of ENERGIA at Hivos. “We know that women are the ones who use the most energy at home. And from experience, we also know they tend to buy and use more sustainable products if another woman explains how the product works and what the benefits are.”

Over the last four years, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA), has supported 4,000 female entrepreneurs through its Women’s Economic Empowerment (WE) programme, a programme that supports women and their communities in the most remote areas of Africa and Asia to access energy. They, in turn, provide about two million people with sustainable energy equipment, such as solar panels, solar lights and energy-saving cooking appliances.

These 4,000 women have created opportunities for the people who buy their sustainable products, but also for themselves. As Sheila Oparaocha, International Coordinator and Programme Manager of ENERGIA at Hivos explains: “The women entrepreneurs’ own lives have also changed enormously. They started out as housewives, and are now seen as successful entrepreneurs. With their new position and status, they gain respect. They also set a very different example for their daughters. These women are the driving force behind social change.”

Women who have made widespread impacts in their rural communities

Oumy Ngom, the leader of a Senegalese women’s group, had been trying to improve the wellbeing of her community for over a decade. After participating in the ENERGIA-sponsored Energy 4 Impact Women’s Economic Empowerment programme, Oumy engaged her group in the use and sale of solar lamps and improved cookstoves. Among other things, Oumy was excited about the savings that the products provided for the local households. “Where families used to spend 500 or 600 Francs on charcoal for cooking, they now spend only 200 to 250 Francs because the new stoves consume so much less than traditional ones,” explains the entrepreneur. During the past year and a half, the women’s group led by Oumy recorded the highest sales of clean energy products among Energy 4 Impact’s entrepreneurs, and Oumy has become a true role model for other women in the group. “What I enjoy most in my work is introducing new products to people. And as an accomplished entrepreneur, I can now share my knowledge with others, by teaching them how to make improved cookstoves or fix solar products,” she explained.

Another inspirational example is Niru Shrestha, who was nominated for the ENERGIA Women Entrepreneurship Award based on her success in selling improved cookstoves. Niru has been in the cookstove business for more than 13 years. When she began her business, she initially constructed built-on-site mud chimney stoves. However, after participating in ENERGIA’s training for female entrepreneurs in 2015, Niru set up shop and started selling biomass cookstoves and components for fixed mud stoves. It soon became evident that she filled a crucial gap in her district’s cookstoves supply, and her business has continued to grow. Niru has developed a solid business plan, established links with city-based suppliers and engaged more than 100 women, who have also been trained in the Women’s Economic Empowerment programme, as local sales agents. During the fiscal year of 2015–2016 alone, her enterprise sold over 6,100 cookstoves, a more than twelve-fold increase compared to total cookstoves sales in her district before Niru launched her business.

Starting with a small energy business, or almost nothing, many of the women go on to become social leaders in their communities. “The economic empowerment of women is a real game changer,” Sheila believes. “These women are role models for other women in their communities, and showcase how others like them can run successful businesses, 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 furthermore helps to reduce poverty and promotes more social investments in health and education in the women’s communities.”

ENERGIA’s Women’s Economic Empowerment (WE) game-changing approach

The WE approach implemented and promoted in ENERGIA involves capacity building, mentoring and other ways of supporting women (and their networks) as energy entrepreneurs. We focus on supporting women’s energy enterprises and other women-led (non-energy) businesses that promote and improve the use of renewable energy sources to generate income and deliver better services to their communities, for instance using a solar-powered refrigerator to chill juices or a solar-powered water pump to irrigate crops.

The approach comprises enterprise development, addressing women entrepreneurs’ specific constraints, and doing this in a way that empowers the women and builds their agency. “Think of skills like market analysis, drafting a business plan, sales training, introduction to financial institutions, providing potential partnerships, and other such things. In addition to the Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme, ENERGIA also carries out research and actively lobbies to put renewable energy and equal rights for men and women on regional and national governments’ agendas,” says Tjarda.

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 model.

By Melissa Ruggles, Neva Nahtigal, Tjarda Muller and Xenia Wassenbergh, International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA)