Rebecca is a farmer from the isolated Mpigi district of Uganda. When she got a solar panel to power a light, she wanted to put it in the chicken house. She knew that chickens only eat when they can see, and if she increased light, her chickens would eat more and get healthier. They did, and they laid more eggs, increasing her income which in turn allowed her to buy seeds, and eventually buy a goat, pigs, and even a cow.
By the time I met Rebecca, I had 20 years’ experience as an investment banker specializing in energy finance and I knew a lot about Africa’s extreme energy poverty. I wanted to help women like Rebecca transform their lives.
Rebecca showed me just what extraordinary potential there is in the women of Africa. From the simple improvement of a single light, she built a profitable farm and improved her own family’s standard of living. She even built a school where she taught local children to read and write, and how to farm their own small plots of land.
To empower more women like Rebecca and help them transform their lives, I founded Solar Sister in 2009. Solar Sister is a social enterprise that uses an innovative enterprise-based business model to bring affordable and durable clean energy to the millions of Africans who live without even a single light bulb.
The women in the Solar Sister network build sustainable businesses selling solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and fuel-efficient stoves. They turn their networks of family, friends and neighbors into effective distribution channels to rural and hard-to-reach customers. At Solar Sister, we coach our staff and our women entrepreneurs and by sharing good practice, we are able to build a sense of “sisterhood” and get better every day.
Solar Sister now has 724 entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda and they have taken clean energy to more than 115,000 people so far.
Women have to be a part of the solution to energy poverty, because 70% of the energy-poor are women and girls. Six out of 10 African women live in areas where supplies of firewood are scarce. Many women rely on costly and dangerous kerosene lanterns for light and cooking. The get burned, and they inhale kerosene fumes equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day. This may partly explain why two-thirds of women with lung cancer in developing nations are non-smokers.
Without community lighting, women risk sexual violence as they walk about at night. Maternal healthcare suffers in the absence of electricity – imagine the difficulty of childbirth in total darkness. This was why I deliberately targeted the female face of energy poverty through my business.
Solar Sister Iniobong Okon in Nigeria is a retired nurse who has set up a maternity clinic with an energy efficient stove to boil water for her clients and a clean brightly lit room powered by solar panels. She recently delivered the son of a woman named Blessing, who then became a Solar Sister herself since she was so impressed by what she experienced at the clinic.
Questions to the reader:
1. Have you considered how the simple needs and problems in your daily life can inspire solutions for your community?
2. Is your business model suitable for engaging networks of other women entrepreneurs to broaden the reach of your products/services?