Many Africans living in rural areas still lack access to electricity. To help tackle this challenge, Solar Sister supports African women entrepreneurs in establishing renewable energy businesses that bring solar technology to “last-mile” communities.
The small community of Odeh sits on the banks of the Niger River in southeast Nigeria. One village leader has a tiny generator that lights one flickering bulb. Other than that, there is no power here. The closest place to charge a mobile phone is a 15-minute boat ride up the river and the nearest electrical grid is an hour away.
Across the African continent, in northern Tanzania, Ranch community encompasses a wide expanse of flat land, dotted with thorny acacia trees and home to pastoralist Maasai families. Though not far from the national grid, several miles down the main road in Longido town, this community has no access to electricity of any kind.
These are just two examples of the “last-mile” communities – low-income, often remote, and unlikely to see grid power any time soon – where Solar Sister works. In thousands of similar communities, Solar Sister’s model of women-driven clean energy entrepreneurship brings solar technology to power family homes, local businesses, churches, schools, and clinics.
The challenge of electricity access is huge, but it also presents a great opportunity to create transformational change on the African continent. In Nigeria alone, there are over 20 million households without access to any kind of power. However, renewable energy is increasingly a positive disrupting force in Africa’s energy sector and, globally, solar is leading the charge. As solar technology for portable lighting, mobile connectivity and larger systems, has improved in price and quality, there is a rush to cover a market in great need of power. Many solar companies across a spectrum of for-profit companies (d.light, Greenlight Planet, Mobisol, Off-Grid Electric, M-KOPA, Fenix International, PEGAfrica) as well as hybrid social enterprises and charities (Barefoot, Energy4Impact, ENVenture, Practical Action, SolarAid, Solar Sister) have risen to this challenge, using a variety of business model, payment, financing, and distribution innovations to spread solar energy solutions to underserved African communities.
Solar Sister’s model
Solar Sister’s approach aims to leave no one behind in the race to provide renewable energy in Africa and also recognises that investing in local women’s skills and leadership is essential. The organisation’s model offers women the opportunity, training, and resources necessary to set up a clean energy business. These entrepreneurs spread clean power in communities that many others do not reach because they do not present lucrative profits due to remoteness, sparse populations, purchasing power challenges, and gaps in trained local workforce. This “first light, last mile” access is absolutely fundamental because without effectively reaching these markets, universal energy access, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to reach by 2030, will remain a pipe dream.
Solar Sister sources high quality clean energy products on wholesale and delivers them to entrepreneurs in last-mile communities. Through their local networks and markets, entrepreneurs market and sell solar lamps and clean stoves to communities in need, while earning a retail mark up.
Solar Sister entrepreneurs are local women who are trusted and known in their communities. They are women like Nanbet Magdalene, a farmer, a single mum of five, and a clean energy entrepreneur selling solar lights and clean cookstoves in Jos, Nigeria. They are women like Valentina Tlemu, a grandmother, a community health worker, and an entrepreneur from Haydom, Tanzania. To date over 3,000 Solar Sister entrepreneurs have brought improved clean energy access to over 1 million people in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Valentina, like many of Solar Sister’s entrepreneurs, is making sure that her solar business lives on in future generations: “I’ve taught all my children about selling solar […]. They know how to use solar lights and they are entrepreneurs […]. After school is done, they need to think about business.”
Energy poverty is gendered. Of the 728 million people who use harmful fuels such as charcoal and wood for cooking, it is largely women who bear the burden. It is women who are responsible for energy management in the household, who invest in their children’s education and who take care of the sick and elderly. It is thus women who are in need of clean and renewable energy solutions. There is ample evidence showing that if you invest in women, the social return is likely to be significant. For starters, as noted by the World Bank, “women usually reinvest a much higher portion in their families and communities than men, spreading wealth beyond themselves.” And energy access makes all the difference. Improved energy access correlates with higher income and decision-making for women: in Brazil, rural self-employed women with energy access have over twice the income of women without energy access; in Tanzania, women with solar lanterns have more decision-making power, more respect, and greater control over financial decisions.
As Isabella Mgaya, a Solar Sister entrepreneur from Maduma village in Tanzania notes, “the woman is the home.” Valentina Tlemu also reminds us that “The community looks to us first because of the way we look after them. Because we show them love. We show them care.”
As a result of Solar Sister’s efforts to support African women entrepreneurs in bringing clean energy to the last-mile communities, important social and economic impact have been recorded, both for the entrepreneurs themselves and in the communities where they sell.
The Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, which conducted a study based on Solar Sister’s activities in 2017, found that the organisation’s women-driven clean energy model has significant developmental impacts, be it from an economic, social, or environmental point of view. Their report highlighted that “solar lanterns create a positive cycle of economic growth that can revolutionise a family’s financial well-being,” and that “solar-powered lighting protects the health of each person in the household and spurs intrinsic changes in women’s self-image and perceived agency.”
A 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) also underlined that “Solar Sister women entrepreneurs are penetrating into last-mile markets and communities that have few alternatives for reliable and affordable clean lighting products.”
Solar Sister’s experience in reaching last-mile communities highlights key areas where businesses need extra support to grow and reach more people. In Africa, small-scale clean energy entrepreneurs work in often difficult environments, particularly for business. Remote communities and markets are connected by poor roads and infrequent transport, seasonal incomes limit purchasing power and cheap, and poor-quality solar products flood local markets. There is also a shortage of trained local experts to increase awareness about new technology, sell high quality solutions, provide customer service, and meet a community’s energy needs. This ongoing local expertise is essential in order for customers to trust the technology and see the benefits first hand.
“One person laughed at me when I tried to sell him a solar lamp. He went to buy a cheaper one at the market. It broke in a month and he came back and bought from me,” says Victoria Ikem, a Solar Sister entrepreneur from Odeh village.
A final difficulty is government taxation on imported clean energy products such as clean cookstoves and solar products, which ultimately trims the margin for Solar Sister entrepreneurs as they sell these products in communities where people do not have a lot of disposable income.
In conclusion, a set of key recommendations – adapted in part from the Global Distributors Collective’s call to action – can be formulated, with a view to solving the last-mile distribution challenge with a gender-inclusive approach:
Adopt a women-driven approach: From a sustainable perspective, it is essential to acknowledge women’s critical role in the supply side of sustainable energy value chain, push for gender inclusion at all levels, and address cultural barriers for women entrepreneurs.
Improve access to finance: Distributors struggle to access finance. In light of this, subsidised capital is essential to mitigate risk and navigate challenges inherent in bottom of the pyramid markets – and does not prevent enterprises from ultimately reaching financial sustainability.
Galvanise support for demand-side challenges: Governments, donors, and manufacturers can play a key role in helping to address the demand-side and awareness challenges in last-mile markets, as well as stimulate greater adoption and use.
Influence decision-makers and policy: Distributors need a greater voice in the decision-making process, so that governments and aid agencies can design policies and programs that support the sector.