Solar Sister: Future is bright for Africa’s women entrepreneurs

Solar Sister entrepreneurs. (Credit: Solar Sister)

There is an enormous business opportunity for solar energy in sub-Saharan Africa, and it can be harnessed by the most unlikely entrepreneurs: women in some of the poorest and most remote communities.

This is according to Katherine Lucy, the CEO and founder of Solar Sister. Since 2009, the nonprofit has helped women involved in the industry by helping them build businesses selling solar-powered products.

By starting their own businesses, Lucy says women not only benefit themselves but are able to supply solar products to their communities on an ongoing basis.

“It’s about sustainability and dignity,” said Lucy in an interview with Humanosphere. “It’s building a market-based system rather than one that’s based off philanthropy … [because]there’s just not enough philanthropy in the world to solve the energy problem.”

According to the International Energy Agency, some 1.2 billion of the world’s people (17 percent) lack access to electricity. The vast majority live in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia.

A number of quantitative and qualitative studies have shown that “energy poverty” undermines people’s health, economic opportunities, education, efficiency and safety. Women and girls make up nearly 75 percent of those living in energy poverty, as they bear the burden of collecting firewood, cooking over smoky stoves and doing household chores – all with little to no lighting.

Solar Sister entrepreneurs. Courtesy of Solar Sister.

Because the need for energy in sub-Saharan Africa is so great (and because sunlight is so plentiful), Lucy says the region has the perfect conditions for the growth of the solar industry. The products sold by Solar Sister’s entrepreneurs – such as solar lamps, mobile phone chargers, fuel-efficient stoves – are made affordable for people in areas where electricity is not yet available.

Lucy says owning such a device can transform the lives of women and girls. Clean energy access is linked with higher wages for women and better chances for girls to complete primary education, while significantly improving their health and safety.

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“Being an entrepreneur and having access to energy … means she is more known in her community as a leader, and that makes her safer, she isn’t one of the vulnerable fringe,” Lucy said. “It means she’s safer when she goes out at night, just having light to light the way.”

The organization now has more than 2,500 entrepreneurs across Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania, and hopes to expand to other countries in the near future. The organization’s growth resembles that of the industry overall; recent figures show the amount of solar added globally surged by 50 percent last year. Women make up a growing percentage of the industry in many countries, such as the United States, where they represent around 28 percent of the solar workforce – up from 18.7 percent in 2013.

Still, Lucy says many women would not be in the solar industry at all if their inclusion were not deliberate and intentional.

“What we’re worried about is that as these business opportunities develop, they will leave behind women and girls both as consumers and as participants in the workforce, whether it’s distribution or sales or customer service or installations or design or manufacturing,” she said. “So if we don’t intentionally and deliberately include women in this opportunity, they’re going to be left behind.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com