Africa’s Solar Powered Future
Africa’s economic growth and quality of life are hindered by a lack of power. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that over 585 million people across the continent lack access to power. That’s where Solar Sister comes in. Since 2009, Solar Sister has empowered a network of women clean energy entrepreneurs. With light comes hope and opportunity. Using an Avon-style distribution model, Solar Sister recruits and supports women to sell affordable solar lighting in an effort to create clean energy access and help these women gain a steady income. We spoke to Solar Sister’s Director of Engagement, Caroline Mailloux, about Solar Sister’s sustainable approach to women’s empowerment and clean energy. This interview was originally published by Ayiba.
How did your founder, Katherine Lucey, make the leap from investment banking to working on solving the issue of energy poverty?
Katherine has always had a passion for energy and women’s empowerment. She spent more than twenty years as an investment banker focused in the energy sector and retired after the arrival of her fifth child and growing discontent that the sector was no longer doing good work and was too heavily focused on making money. After taking some time off to be with her family, she began searching for ways to return to energy that were more personally fulfilling and socially impactful. After a trip to Africa with Solar Light For Africa, the idea for Solar Sister sparked. Katherine’s goals were to 1) sell product that was accessible and affordable, 2) tap into the power of local social networks to amplify distribution, and 3) design the solution as market-based, enabling both economic empowerment and pride of ownership of people who purchased their own solution versus relying on philanthropy. It became clear early on that the best way to achieve these goals was supporting women, because they manage household energy, have extensive social networks, and are disproportionately impacted by energy poverty.
Which countries in Africa does Solar Sister operate in? Why were those countries chosen?
Solar Sister currently operates in Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria to empower women entrepreneurs selling clean energy technologies. We are building a sustainable model of development based on a market-based distribution system that we hope to scale to communities across sub-Saharan Africa over time. A key value of our work is dedicated support for our entrepreneurs to help them succeed in their businesses. We provide a complete package of support including training, access to quality suppliers and a vetted product line, logistics, access to capital, and ongoing mentoring. Our business model is simple, but requires a focused dedication to ensure success. To enter into a new country, Solar Sister must first put in place the necessary legal registrations and build the local team to provide this support. As such, we must balance our eagerness to expand our program to many places that need it, with the reality of the resources and commitment that such dedicated support requires.
It is in collaboration with many dedicated funding, technology, and implementation partners that Solar Sister evaluates opportunities to expand into new countries. Our vision is light, hope, and opportunity for everyone, everywhere.
Why is energy poverty a gendered issue?
Almost two billion people in the world do not have access to electricity. Seventy percent of these are women and girls, giving energy poverty a female face. They rely on kerosene lanterns and candles for light. They spend up to 40% of their family income on energy that is inefficient, insufficient, and hazardous. Breathing kerosene fumes is the equivalent of smoking two packets of cigarettes a day and two-thirds of adult females with lung cancer in the developing nations are non-smokers. Lack of power affects the safety and health of women and girls. Without light, they are at a higher risk of violence as they walk through unlit areas. Maternal healthcare (such as prenatal care and nighttime deliveries) suffers in the absence of basic electricity. Education and businesses face the brunt of this darkness as well.
As the primary consumers of household energy, women are critical to the successful adaptation of clean energy technology solutions. We believe that investing in women is a prerequisite for large-scale adoption of clean energy technologies at a grassroots level. It is this gender inclusive systems approach combined with an enterprise-based model to bring a sustainable livelihood opportunity to address energy poverty that makes us unique. Solar Sister provides a scalable solution to build a bottom up green economy to spread light, hope, and opportunity.
Which women tend to be most successful with their sales?
In most direct sales models, about 20% of the entrepreneurs account for 80% of sales. Like all businesses, the most successful are active in marketing their business, building community around the product, creative in the connections they make, and deliberate about following up with customers for repeat sales.
What products does Solar Sister sell?
Solar Sister sells a wide variety of clean energy technology products from a trusted network of manufacturing partners certified by Lighting Africa. Such products include portable lighting, mobile phone charging, clean cook stoves, and larger home systems. Our technology partners like d.light Design, Greenlight Planet, Barefoot Power, and Bboxx share our belief that in order for modern technology to be an effective solution to the health, economic, and environmental challenges of traditional energy sources, the products must be well designed, durable, and affordable.
Solar Sister benefits from a win-win partnership with our manufacturing and technology partners: our last mile distribution chain and real time customer feedback supports their work, while our Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and their customers benefit from high quality, award-winning product purchased from a trusted source with a warranty. Solar Sister’s carefully curated catalogue of energy products offers end customers a choice to select product that fits their unique needs and budget. Working with multiple technology partners enables Solar Sister to bring the most current product innovations directly to our customers’ doorsteps.
How does access to clean energy transform the lives of families?
Clean energy provides economic benefits, household savings as well as educational and health and safety impacts. It also drives local economic activity. For the female entrepreneurs involved in Solar Sister, it also creates a sense of sisterhood.
Solar Sister invests in women entrepreneurs to empower them with economic opportunity. Investing in women is a smart investment as the women reinvest the money in their families. For every $1 invested in a Solar Sister Entrepreneur, $46 of economic impact is generated.
Solar Sister sells modern energy technologies, which bring household savings in both time and money. The use of solid fuels also inflicts high economic costs on families who can pay as much as one-third of their scarce income simply to purchase sufficient fuel to cook daily meals. On average, there is a 30% reduction in household expenses when customers use solar lamps to replace fuel-based lighting.
With access to clean and safe solar light, children are able to study for longer hours and perform better at school. Kudra Shamroy, a Solar Sister Entrepreneur from Mnenia village in Tanzania, informs us that her granddaughters are now able to study at night with solar lights and she has seen a positive impact on their school performance.
Access to clean energy translates into reduction in indoor air pollution. According to the UN Foundation’s Igniting Change report, burns from open fires and unsafe cook stoves are another insidious risk faced by poor households dependent on kerosene, open fires, and unstable metal or clay cook stoves, contributing to a substantial percentage of the estimated 300,000 burn deaths that occur annually. The benefit of clean energy is not just limited to inside the house. With access to safe lighting and energy efficient cook stoves, women and girls are safer at night as they no longer have to travel long distances to collect firewood as frequently, or venture outdoors in complete darkness.
One of the powerful ripple effects of modern energy access is its impact on local economic activity. Businesses are able to operate longer. Hadija Hante is a Solar Sister Entrepreneur from Kolo, Tanzania. Hadija is also owner of a small local grocery shop. In addition to boosting her income through sale of solar products, she shares that her brightly lit shop now attracts more customers at night as the shop can be seen from a distance.
A profound impact of Solar Sister is women’s shared sense of sisterhood and an increase in confidence and improved social status. Theresia, an Entrepreneur from Mpigi, Uganda was recently asked to run for elected office. Joan from Kitumba, Uganda recently bought her own plot of land.