E&C Consultants finished 2021 sharing with its audience an important announce: our partnership agreement with Solar Sister. After 6 months of collaboration, we meet with Katherine Lucey, Founder and CEO of Solar Sister, to talk about the exponential social and economic impact of solar energy in the African communities they support.
Summarized in one of their taglines: Invest in women. Power the future.
E&C Consultants: Let´s start at the beginning: What's behind ‘Solar Sister‘? How did you choose the name of the organization?
Katherine Lucey: The ‘Solar’ represents the renewable energy technology that will lead our energy transition to a sustainable future. The ‘Sister’ represents the essential role that women play in bringing that future into reality.
The story of how Solar Sister started is one of those eureka moments that, when recognized, are the beginning of movements. I am a former investment banker from America and traveled to Uganda in 2008, where I met Rebecca, a rural farmer. Using solar to light her chicken coop, Rebecca showed that one woman’s creative enterprise transforms lives. With more light, the chickens produced more eggs. As she sold more eggs, she built a profitable farm, improving her family’s standard of living and building a community school. I thought, “If one woman can make such an impact with a solar panel, what could a whole network of women accomplish?” Then I set out to make that realization a reality with Solar Sister.
E&C: Solar Sister works in Tanzania and Nigeria, is there any specific reason for these concrete locations?
KL: Solar Sister chose to work in Tanzania, Nigeria, and now more recently, Kenya because these countries are particularly challenged by energy poverty and the need for a distributed clean energy solution. Africa remains the least energized region, with nearly 80% of the 760 million people globally without access to electricity and 36% of the 2.6 billion people without access to clean cooking. While significant efforts have increased electrification, the rate is not enough to close the continent’s energy access deficit rapidly.1
Nigeria has a larger number of people living without access to energy in Africa. Eighty-five million Nigerians don’t have access to grid electricity. This represents 43% percent of the country’s population and makes Nigeria the country with the largest energy access deficit in the world.2
Tanzania has one of the lowest rural electrification rates on the continent. In 2018, 29% of the population 3 in Tanzania had access to electricity. That number was 10% for rural populations, and for poor households, it was 7%. About 66.2% of Tanzania’s population lives in rural areas, according to data from 2018. This means that most of the population that needs electricity lives in off-grid regions.4
Despite its vibrant economy, Kenya has a large disparity between advances in urban and rural communities, with rural communities suffering from being left behind. Solar Sister had the opportunity to merge with LivelyHoods in Kenya and will expand their work in urban areas to more rural communities. LivelyHoods is now Solar Sister Kenya.
E&C: How do you find/identify your entrepreneurs?
KL: Solar Sister employs local Business Development Associates who recruit and train entrepreneurs. Business Development Associates visit communities in the region where they live and work. Often they will meet with village leaders to recommend candidates for entrepreneurship. Many rural communities have Village Savings and Loan Associations or VSLAs. The VSLA meetings are a terrific place to meet and recruit entrepreneur candidates.
Our Business Development Associate makes a presentation to the group, and often several women and sometimes men will sign up. After Solar Sister recruits someone to become an entrepreneur, we provide a comprehensive training package and ongoing mentoring on business, technology, and leadership skills necessary to kickstart a sustainable clean energy business.
Retired school teacher Ojetunde Wemimo is a great example of how Solar Sister's entrepreneurs are identified. She met her local Business Associate at a savings and loan meeting in 2019.
“How I started the business is quite funny. My Business Development Associate, Segun Adekoya, presented the opportunity to join Solar Sister during a meeting at a savings and loan organization I belong to. I loved his presentation and the business opportunity, so I got his contact afterward. Quickly, that same day, I got a loan from my organization. I called Segun right away and signed up that day before any other people in my organization took up the opportunity.”
Ojetunde Wemimo (right), a great example of how Solar Sister's entrepreneurs are identified.
E&C: We know that recently you have reached 3 million people across Africa with solar energy and clean cookstoves and kickstarted over 7,000 clean energy entrepreneurs — How is this impact influencing the daily socioeconomic life and reality of these communities?
KL: One of the most powerful insights from our work at Solar Sister is that opening up economic opportunities for women and honoring their wisdom and agency has a positive impact on the women, their families, their communities, and even the world at large. When women have more agency they make better choices for their lives, including caring for their families and communities. When they have an income of their own they invest in better education for their children, better healthcare for themselves and their families, and accumulating savings to build resilience.5
In 2018, the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Santa Clara, CA conducted a study with Solar Sister on customers to determine the effects of the solar lamps. Their conclusion is that solar lanterns’ effects on customers are more comprehensive and far-reaching than providing light.
With solar lanterns, students have a reliable, bright light to use for their studies and show significant improvement in their education. Families are relieved of the damaging health effects from kerosene and no longer risk burns and home fires from kerosene lamps. Households experience financial benefits by ceasing the use of costly kerosene, growing existing businesses, and starting new businesses. Further, individuals have more time in their day due to increased lighting hours and elimination of travel time to obtain kerosene. Businesses can stay open longer if they have solar light and increase their sales and income.
One example: when Isabella Mgaya first signed up as a Solar Sister Entrepreneur in Tanzania she said she didn't know about solar, that she had never seen "these things". Even more, she wondered if anyone "would buy them". But people loved the solar lights, and soon customers were buying the more expensive products that also charge mobile phones. Isabella sold to families and to businesses. Now, when you walk around Maduma village, you can see Isabella’s influence - the local shops lit up by solar lights, the local pub and other businesses lit, with Isabella’s help. People are saving money because they save on batteries or kerosene.
Isabella Mgaya, successful Solar Sister Entrepreneur in Tanzania
All these benefits combine to create intrinsic changes in individuals’ behaviors, decision-making and sense of agency. While access to energy in and of itself can increase women’s economic activities, an element that makes Solar Sister’s work is the use of entrepreneurship strategies that train women and tap into their social networks to bring energy access to hard-to-reach communities.
Regarding the impact on the Solar Sister Entrepreneurs (SSEs), women gain much more than just additional income by working with Solar Sister. Through the direct economic empowerment of their job, they also indirectly gain in other forms of empowerment, such as increased decision-making power, better health and healthcare options, and greater respect from their community. Perhaps most significantly, the majority of women Solar Sister Entrepreneurs also report increased autonomy, independence, and self-esteem, saying they feel “privileged”, “proud”, and like “a stronger woman” thanks to their work with Solar Sister.6
E&C: Could you offer examples to illustrate these impacts?
KL: Of course, here is a list of tangible effects:
E&C: E&C recently organized its annual conference which focused on the topic of the energy transition and the current volatility of the energy markets. We are witnessing how, globally, the energy transition becomes more and more a reality with public and private entities investing resources to achieve it. Is there any opportunity for these small communities to become more integrated as the energy transition develops?
KL: The energy transition includes the tremendous opportunity for communities to generate their own renewable energy. Solar in particular is highly distributable and can be sized to fit the need of an individual (solar lamp), household (solar home system), or local community (micro-grid or mini-grid). Because of this, the transition democratizes access to energy in an unprecedented way, and put the power in people's hands, both literally and figuratively to take action. Scaling up local action will be vital to building momentum around the energy transition in Africa. In this crucial time, we must continue empowering local leaders and local entrepreneurs and promote their efforts to drive progress towards a clean energy future, complementing government action to mitigate the health, economic and social challenges we are now facing. Diversity, leadership, and sustainability will be the overarching principles shaping the conversation on the way forward to drive the energy transition in Africa.
E&C: E&C´s clients are comprised of large energy consumers. In what ways can these big companies have an impact on energy poverty?
KL: As large energy consumers, E&C's clients are essential actors for impacting the energy transition and affecting energy poverty. Keeping in mind that women and children in Africa are some of the most affected by climate change, but have contributed to its cause the least. A just energy transition will include rebalancing that inequity. As large energy consumers, one of the most meaningful ways to reduce carbon footprint is to rigorously invest in energy efficiency. As the use of energy drops, so will the cost. Tithing a portion of that savings to support renewable energy access in Africa can be invested in a just, equitable, and sustainable future for millions of people in Africa.
E&C: How do you see yourself in the future? Could Solar Sister’s model be expanded geographically?
KL: We have recently expanded Solar Sister to Kenya, merging with another social enterprise, LivelyHoods Kenya. This merger validates an innovative approach that translates and scales across cultures and contexts. Expanding into the Kenyan market accelerates Solar Sister's commitment to expand impact across sub-Saharan Africa building on the strength of its model of women entrepreneurs selling solar lights and clean cookstoves to family, friends, and neighbors.
Bringing these two organizations together is a massive leap forward in scaling up a proven energy access solution that improves human well-being, boosts equity, and helps usher in prosperity for people in sub-Saharan Africa. Our mission, vision, and values are in complete alignment, giving us a solid foundation for our combined efforts. We bring different geographic and market segment expertise to the table that will enable us to grow in size as well as strength. We are better together, and that benefits our customers, our communities, our partners, and our funders.
Solar Sister’s model to empower women with both economic opportunity and access to energy opens up avenues to economic development by training primarily women to start their own businesses within their communities. In the past, it was thought that the best way to reach African rural areas would be by grid technologies, but that has not been the case. Solar home systems and pico-solar systems are the most available and affordable alternatives to grid technologies.
An essential dimension of Solar Sister’s mission is the creation of trust-based social networks between sales associates, local entrepreneurs, and customers. Solar Sister's local management staff works with Business Development Associates, who recruit and train local entrepreneurs to sell solar lights and cookstoves to build “trust networks” of friends, family, and neighbors. The creation and deepening of women-to-women networks and the conscious cultivation of trust networks are essential to Solar Sister’s entrepreneurial strategy.8
Case study: the story of Mariamu Athumani Shezuz
At 50, Mariamu Athumani Shezuz has dreams. She dreams of alleviating her community and the communities around her from energy poverty and improving the lives of her friends, neighbors, and fellow Tanzanians.
"I bring energy access to my community, especially the poor who can not even afford to buy kerosene; they can buy a D.Light S3 which is $6, and they use it for a long time."
She dreams of growing her solar energy business. As a successful entrepreneur for the past seven years, her dreams are becoming a reality.
She has two children, a granddaughter, and an extended family she helps to support. Several years ago, she met Halima, a Solar Sister Business Development Associate, at a Village Savings and Loan meeting and decided try the solar business.
Mariamu helps her 13-year-old granddaughter, Mwanahawa Bakari, with her primary school homework.
"It has saved my life", she said. "I am no longer using kerosene. I now understand how to manage my money, to plan and keep good records."
Mariamu feels better equipped to meet challenges head-on. For example, after setting up her calendar, she sent orders ahead to customers before the rainy season since many roads are impassable during that time.
Mariamu loves the freedom it gives her to run her own business. To other women in her community, she says, "Don't let opportunities pass”.
A future goal?
"I wish to own a motorcycle, so I can be free to go to different places and do my business."
E&C and Solar Sisters' partnership was agreed under our CSR policy in December 2021. We are honoured to be partnering with Solar Sister in our aim to tackle energy poverty – together we not only help our clients in procuring smarter energy for a better world, but we also ensure we leave no one behind.
1 ADDRESSING ENERGY’S INTERLINKAGES WITH OTHER SDGs, Policy Brief, 6/1/2022, page 69, https://sdgs.un.org/sdg7tag
5 On Thin Ice, A guide for philanthropists and changemakers to address climate change, page 68-69. https://www.ubs.com/global/en/ubs-society/philanthropy/experiences/on-thin-ice.html?campID=SOME-ONTHINICE-GLOBAL-ENG-TWITTER-UBSCORPORATE-ANY-LAUNCH-20220605-VIDEO-ALLFOLLOWERS-ORGANIC&sprinklrpostid=100003148155692
6 Leslie Gray, Alaina Boyle, Erika Francks & Victoria Yu (2018): The power of small-scale solar: gender, energy poverty, and entrepreneurship in Tanzania, Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2018.1526257
7 Leslie Gray, Alaina Boyle, Erika Francks & Victoria Yu (2018): The power of small-scale solar: gender, energy poverty, and entrepreneurship in Tanzania, Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2018.1526257
8 Leslie Gray, Alaina Boyle, Erika Francks & Victoria Yu (2018): The power of small-scale solar: gender, energy poverty, and entrepreneurship in Tanzania, Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2018.1526257