Last mile entrepreneurs: Women are driving the off-grid solar industry

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Image: Hilaria Paschal/Solar Sister

In June 2017, Hilaria Paschal, a farmer and basket weaver from a rural town in Northern Tanzania traveled to New York to speak at the 2017 Sustainable Energy for All Forum – years back she did not even have access to electricity. Off-grid solar helped transform Hilaria’s life, not only easing her access to energy, but also giving her the opportunity to become an entrepreneur and change the lives of those in her community.

Substantial evidence shows the off-grid solar industry has been transforming lives and making a lasting economic, social and environmental impact. Hilaria’s life shows us that the industry can do far more.

Hilaria’s tryst with off-grid solar began in 2013 when she was first introduced to Solar Sister. Inspired by what she heard, Hilaria decided to test the benefits of a solar light within her household. Soon after, she was selling off-grid solar products within her community, reaching over 2,000 people with affordable and safe ways to cook and power their lives. She hasn’t looked back since.

Women suffer a larger part of the burden of energy starvation. We have seen off-grid solar solutions empower them economically and socially as end users. With organizations like Solar Sister and Frontier Markets taking women empowerment a step further and investing in women entrepreneurship within the sector, stories like that of Hilaria’s are becoming more common in some of the world’s poorest regions.

Research from ENERGIA draws a close link between women’s energy entrepreneurship and “last-mile” energy access, offering multiple development gains. So how intricate is the link between the off-grid solar sector and woman empowerment?

  1. As primary users of household energy, women are well positioned to understand how energy starvation affects their families. As they learn more about the benefits of off-grid solar solutions, these women are also well placed to introduce energy solutions into the lives of others, especially their families and their community.
  2. According to research by Fenix International, women bring in more new clients than men. The company states that women are better ambassadors of rural electrification, who on an average can be expected to refer four new customers, compared to three for men. They further go on to say that contrary to popular belief, in many sub-Saharan African off-grid families, women are the ones who pull the strings and spread the word about the benefits of solar.
  3. Research shows that women reinvest 90% of their income toward their communities and families, whereas men reinvest only 30-40% of their income. Women are also more likely than men to spend earnings on their children’s health, education, and overall well-being. This not only helps economic growth but also has a huge impact on poverty reduction.
  4. Women have a large amount of untapped potential, especially as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Proactively integrating women across the value chain as designers, educators, trainers, and managers could help rapidly expand the adoption of distributed energy. Substantiating this, a study conducted in Tanzania states that women with solar lanterns had more decision-making power and respect in their households and communities. 83% of women with solar lanterns reported increased control over financial decisions, 70% felt more respected in their household, and 64% felt more respected in their community.

As a sector, we need to understand that energy poverty is not gender neutral. Investing and working with women entrepreneurs, especially those based in remote rural regions comes with its own challenges – the benefits however not only positively impact the lives of the people around them, but also the industry and the economy on a whole. Let us take a moment and celebrate the many women who are taking renewable energy to the heart of their communities.

Read more about how off-grid solar is transforming the lives of millions in our Powering Opportunity reports.

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