Florence lives in rural Uganda and is a member of the Ntulume Village Women’s Development Association. She’s also a Solar Sister. Solar Sister, the brainchild of Katherine Lucey, is a social enterprise focused on eradicating energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity.
One quarter of the world’s population — 1.6 billion people — don’t have reliable access to electricity. The lion’s share — seventy percent — are women and girls who live in the developing world. Instead, they rely on kerosene lanterns and paraffin candles for light, choices that are both inefficient and hazardous, and they spend up to forty percent of their incomes on these poor energy sources.
Lucey’s innovative solution is to equip these women to become what she calls “solar entrepreneurs” and provide them with the tools to sell solar technology. The women sell an array of clean energy household products including solar lamps, cell phone chargers, clean cookstoves and other products such as solar and hand crank radios.
Why focus on women? “There is a gender-based technology gap combined with a distribution gap — often referred to as the ‘problem of the last mile’– that keeps these life-changing solutions from being adapted.
Through its network of women solar entrepreneurs, Solar Sister addresses both these issues and has created the most effective last mile distribution system for rural Africa,” Lucey, a winner of a 2011 SVN Innovation Award, told me in an email interview. Lucey will be speaking at SVN’s fall conference on Friday in Philadelphia.
Lucey started Solar Sister in 2010 after working as an investment banker focused on the energy sector for 20 years. Today, her enterprise has 150 entrepreneurs in Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda, bringing light and opportunity to over 8,000 people. She has plans to expand to Kenya and Tanzania later this year.
“Clean energy technology has been developed that is affordable, appropriate and available. But it is not easily accessible to the people who need it most, the women and children in rural communities,” Lucey explains. “Through access to technology, Solar Sister creates critical, lasting change in the lives of women and girls living with the devastating effects of energy poverty,” she continues.
“Solar Sister works because it addresses a real need, the need for light and energy in communities without access to electricity. We do this by tapping into one of the most powerful, but overlooked, networks in the world, womens’ natural social networks of family, friends and neighbors.”
And, as Lucey, says, she does it “Avon lady” style. Solar Sister provides each entrepreneur with a “business in a bag”, a complete start up kit of training, marketing support and inventory access that gives a woman the tools she needs to be successful.
“At the household level, it is largely women who are responsible for utilities such as water and energy. It is the women go to town to purchase small amounts of kerosene and fill up their lamps, spending $2-$4 per week simply for light.
If we are going to change that and have women make a decision that it is better to buy a $20 lamp that will last for years rather than spend $2 every week for kerosene that is toxic, unhealthy and poor light, then we have to reach her at the point of decision. The women-centered distribution system that Solar Sister uses is very much like a Avon model – women selling to women – and is the most effective and efficient distribution method for reaching women right at their doorstep.”
The Solar Sisters, who earn a commission on each sale, don’t pay for their inventory until they sell it, enabling them to create sustainable businesses. The profits are invested back into growing the network of Solar Sister Entrepreneurs.
Remember Florence? Watch and listen as she speaks about her experience as Solar Sister and being a true source of light for her community:
The impact Solar Sister has on its clients reaches beyond simple household economics.
“When families have access to clean, affordable light, their children study longer and do better in school, they are healthier and suffer fewer injuries from burns or smoke inhalation, babies are born guided by a mid-wife who can see what she is doing rather than rely on a candle held between her teeth, women can pursue income generating activities and help their families make ends meet,” Lucey claims.
“The strength of our enterprise solution comes from the women themselves, it is their own ingenuity and commitment that builds their business, we are just offering them the opportunity to help themselves.
Even small amounts of electricity can dramatically improve the lives of women living with acute energy poverty. Creating economic opportunities for women in turn has a multiplier effect on social and economic progress of their communities and our world.
The women may not have economic capital to invest in a business, but they do have their social capital – their networks of family, friends and neighbors. Together we are successful.”
Photo credit: Solar Sister