Given the transformative potential of solar power to address growing concerns about climate change, pollution, and sustainable energy integration, as well as to effectively harness the unique skills of women, it is crucial to recognize and cultivate this relationship.
Because of its potential to spur economic independence, decision-making power, and social mobility, solar energy has a unique intersection with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 which addresses the empowerment of women and girls.
This blog showcases three women from the developing world who have used small-scale solar panels, solar cook stoves, and solar lanterns to become successful businesswomen. Their stories demonstrate how women serve as frequent decision makers regarding how household energy is used and how they can serve as ideal agents of change who successfully spearhead the proliferation of solar energy.
A primary hurdle to mobilizing these agents of change, however, lies in the lack of financial independence for many women. Because domestic work is considered part of household duties and is thus perceived to be exempt from monetary compensation, women frequently have less control over how to use and distribute household income. Where an opportunity for a new solar business may exist, women often face a lack of access to sufficient starting capital.
Where an opportunity for a new solar business may exist, women often face a lack of access to sufficient starting capital.
The following case studies demonstrate how three women have surpassed various hurdles and have embraced the use of solar technology to become clean energy entrepreneurs. This growing relevance of women’s entrepreneurship through solar power also applies to every level of the energy value chain. Improving energy access, energy consumption, and solar employment opportunities for women everywhere has broad social, economic, and environmental benefits.
(Photo: Mamadou Diane, Aarthi Sivaraman / World Bank)
Mamadou Diane’s Booming Solar Business in Mali
Mamadou Diane, the owner of a bed and breakfast south of Mali’s capital city of Bamako, is an outstanding example of a female entrepreneur who is harnessing solar power for a wide range of benefits. Diane was first introduced to solar panels in 1995 and began a bold business venture selling panels to her neighbors in the early 2000s. She was able to entice members of her community to purchase the panels by explaining how solar power could help them watch the Africa Cup of Nations football games from their own home televisions, without interruption.
Because Diane’s community is located more than 100 miles from the national electric grid, her business has helped to electrify the homes of many rural Malians who otherwise might not have been able to access electricity. By using a self-consumption solar mini-grid system to power her own bed and breakfast, Diane also was able to sustainably power her own business, inspire other female entrepreneurs within her community, and finance her brother’s education in Nigeria. She mentions how she aims to, “build [her] own house…buy more land, and expand her business.”
(Photo: Swayam Shikshan Prayog)
Varsha Pawar’s Solar Cook Stove Business in India
In India, a nonprofit that helps women become clean energy entrepreneurs, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), has helped Varsha Pawar transform her life. Varsha, a housewife living in the Osmanabad district in the state of Maharashtra, began selling solar cook stoves and lamps in her neighborhood through the resources introduced to her by SSP. Soon after her business took off, she noted a dramatic increase in her social mobility and community influence.
Pawar mentions how previously, “she could not even move out of the house,” but that now, due to her economic influence and independence, “no household decisions are made without [her] consent.” She is also the sarpanch (village council chief) for her village and continues to advocate for the use of clean energy throughout her entire administrative block. Pawar comments on how, “many women [now] travel to seek [her] advice on how to be economically independent.”
Solar Sister entrepreneur Fatma Mziray in Tanzania discovered that when she hung her solar lamp on a tree near the cows, the hyenas stayed away. (Photo: Joanna Pinneo)
Rebecca’s Ingenious Use of Solar Panels in Uganda
Katherine Lucey, chief executive of the social enterprise Solar Sister, credits a large part of her inspiration to start the company to a woman named Rebecca. Rebecca, a farmer from the isolated Mpigi district of Uganda, received a solar panel through the program to initially light up her home. But instead of using the light for personal use, she placed it in the chicken house. Knowing that chickens only eat when they can see, and that with more lighting her chickens would eat more and be healthier, Rebecca felt that this decision made sense in the long run.
With this method, not only did Rebecca’s chickens get healthier, but they also laid more eggs. As she began to sell the eggs, her income increased dramatically and enabled her to buy seeds, a goat, pigs, and even a cow. As Rebecca’s farm became profitable over time, her family’s standard of living improved exponentially, enabling her to build a school where she now teaches local children how to read, write, and farm their own small plots of land.
Lessons Learned Through Women in Solar
With a host of development benefits, solar energy harnessed by women around the world has the ability to advance both human livelihoods and environmental protection. In addition to the nonprofits and social enterprises mentioned above, other international organizations, companies, development banks and more have recognized this relationship and are allocating resources toward harnessing this potential.
The World Bank, for example, has created a “gender and energy” Collaboration for Development. Through this interactive online platform, practitioners from around the world share experiences, emerging tools, available resources, and knowledge on gender equality and energy.
Additionally, the United Nations Development Programme’s GEF Small Grants Program has partnered with Barefoot College, a nonprofit that is dedicated to empowering women through solar energy, to provide technical support and funding assistance for pilot projects.
ENERGIA, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, was founded in 1996 by a group of women involved in the gender and energy sector. To date, ENERGIA networks can be found in twenty-two African and Asian countries and are currently working to scale up women-led energy enterprises.
In addition to this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has established a Global Gender Office. Through the collaboration of this office and the U.S. Agency for International Development, an initiative called Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities (GECCO) has been established.
These projects, in addition to many other efforts, are addressing the proliferation of solar energy through a gendered lens. While the nexus between gender and solar energy is still being explored, it is exciting and promising to see the significant strides that have been made in this field and the potential there is for all that is to come.
Monica Chitre is an intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Energy and Climate team.
Banner photo: These women are part of a program known as “Solar Grannies” hosted by Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India. Elderly women, who tend to be embedded and active members of their local communities, are trained to introduce solar-powered lanterns and install solar panels in their respective neighborhoods. (Photo: Georgie Johnson)