An opinion piece by Mariama Kamara
“Be the change you want to see. Encouraging women to become energy entrepreneurs offers multiple development benefits, such as an expansion of economic activities for women, a diversification of productive options and the creation of new sources of wealth and income to support family investment in education and health.” — Mariama Kamara, Founder and Director of Smiling Through Light
The energy sector is traditionally male-dominated with men’s access to better education, skills training, and finance enabling them to develop businesses and access markets that women have often been excluded from as a result of gendered social norms and culture. When it comes to energy, the role of women has often been limited to that of consumers instead of active players and thought leaders in the whole process.
The benefits of clean energy solutions and technologies on women and girls is championed on global platforms, and women are increasingly being recognised as important to energy access planning processes and participating in the energy transition. It is important to understand the benefits that arise when women are embraced, engaged and empowered as catalysts actively striving for, and working towards, Sustainable Development Goal 7.
Investing in women is vital
My experience of working and setting up a clean energy access business in Sierra Leone has demonstrated that investing in women’s potential as entrepreneurs, technicians, policy-makers and thought-leaders is vital for achieving gender-transformative outcomes and more effective energy access approaches.
“Women, as primary consumers and users of clean energy products, need to be integrated into the process of designing appropriate solutions and engaged throughout the value chain to adopt clean energy options.”
It is also important to recognise that at the intersection of gender equality and sustainable energy access lies vast potential for women’s economic empowerment, certainly, and also for sustainable development and improved wellbeing for their communities and beyond. Women’s knowledge, empowerment and collective action are central to building environmentally sustainable pathways to sustainable energy access; emphasising in particular the diverse role that women in Sierra Leone play across the energy value chain from production and transportation, to distribution and end use. Women, as primary consumers and users of clean energy products, need to be integrated into the process of designing appropriate solutions and engaged throughout the value chain to adopt clean energy options.
There are many examples of great women working within Sierra Leone and who are at the forefront of the energy access space and actively participating in the energy transition. In October 2018, I had a meeting with the Hon. Minister of Energy — Alhaji Kanja Sesay where he mentioned Barefoot Women Solar Engineer Association of Sierra Leone (BWSEASL). I had one of the greatest discussion in my life when I met with these women a couple of weeks later. BWSEASL have been working on rural electrification since 2005. Madam Nancy Kanu of Konta Line and Fatu Koroma of Mayainmibana started as soap makers, but in 2007, they became the first women to be trained as Barefoot Engineers at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. After their training, they started to install panels in three villages; Konta Line, Mamanso and Mayainmibana before they selected another batch of women to be trained.
An inclusive transition that leaves no-one behind
BWSEASL are pioneers who have led the way for other women in Sierra Leone. To date, they have trained over 100 women solar engineers in their training centre at Konta Line. These women have been working on solar energy technology for economic activities that empower women and youths in Sierra Leone. I learnt a lot during the time I spent with them. The drive towards the older generations passing knowledge to the younger generation is vital and should be encouraged. With all my years working in the energy sector I have always heard about Barefoot College but never of these women. I have never seen any of them at international conferences although they have been actors of the transition before many of the organisations that we see and hear from. It is essential that women of every age, race, class and educational background be included in this transition. It should be an inclusive transition where no one is left behind. Madam Nancy Kanu says it best: “they say we are illiterate, but let them see what we have achieved.” I totally agree, these women have supported the socioeconomic, environmental and health aspects of Sierra Leone, they have provided not only income opportunities for women but also the opportunity for them to travel, learn, think and be social innovators in their work whilst creating jobs.
Women ruling Sierra Leone’s energy transition
Sierra Leone, like many other countries, is embarking on transitions to sustainable energy systems and these changes will require fundamental and interrelated changes in technologies, infrastructure, markets, institutions and policies. One of the many women who have been leading policy and campaigning activities in Sierra Leone is Aminata Dumbuya, part of the Energy Access Practitioner Network who was the former Campaign Leader for Power For All Campaign in Sierra Leone. The global campaign advocates for decentralised renewable energy as the fastest and most affordable way to energy access. Aminata has been working and supporting the government and the Ministry of Energy to enact policy, pushing awareness and behaviour change on the sector. One of the biggest achievement of the campaign was their efforts to get the government to sign Sierra Leone Energy Africa Compact, an agreement between the UK and the Government of Sierra Leone to implement joint action further to the Energy Africa campaign in Sierra Leone. This started the Sierra Leone Energy Revolution to eradicate energy poverty in the country.
Women like Sophie Johnson, Founding Director of Solar Era Holdings LTD has been engaging in developing renewable energy projects in Sierra Leone. She is also the first and founding President of the Sierra Leone Renewable Energy Association (REASL), an association of private sector companies working with government, donors and other stakeholders to advocate for policies and building an enabling environment for the acceleration of energy access through the use of distributed renewable energy.
“These women are building social capital, developing fundamental business skills, and improving their own confidence as entrepreneurs. They are driving behaviour change within the rural communities they are working and convincing others to adopt clean energy options.”
All these women and many more have been at the forefront and leading the energy transition in Sierra Leone whilst giving other women a voice; a voice that they never had. We, at Smiling Through Light, work with a network of women to provide clean, reliable and sustainable energy in Sierra Leone. The sales agents within our team are pushing boundaries and challenging social and cultural norms about women, business and social entrepreneurship. These women are building social capital, developing fundamental business skills, and improving their own confidence as entrepreneurs. They are driving behaviour change within the rural communities they are working and convincing others to adopt clean energy options. For me, these are the women giving a voice to the global south. Women who start working at the dawn, who have to prepare meals for their families, get their children ready for school and travel to work to sell clean energy products. Women are pushing boundaries to change, have a voice and contribute to the development of an enabling energy environment in Sierra Leone.
Women in Sierra Leone have demonstrated that energy is a catalyst for women’s economic empowerment and advancement. Energy access transforms lives and communities through unlocking not just power, but benefits to health, education levels, livelihoods, gender equality and the environment. It also boosts productivity and income. Energy is imperative to women’s daily lives, for cooking, lighting for teaching their children at night, health outcomes and security. For women in Sierra Leone and globally, I call on us to work in collaboration and share best practice; our full inclusion is vital to ensuring that the new energy economy is based on a pool of talent, knowledge and skills that will have an impact on millions of lives globally. Let’s not leave anyone behind.
Mariama Kamara is the Founder of Smiling Through Light. She was nine years old in 1991 when a brutal civil war broke out in Sierra Leone and she was forced to move to the United Kingdom. Although she experienced injustice as a black woman in business, Mariama never gave up and she is one of the main driving forces for energy access in Sierra Leone. @smilingmk
This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe now to read more on the topic.