Protecting women and girls during the global recession: Solar-powered appliances enable distance learning and enhance health outcomes

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While disrupting the daily lives of billions, the impacts of COVID-19 are felt the hardest by the world’s most vulnerable people. This series, developed by the Efficiency for Access Coalition, explores the implications of the pandemic on off-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and how solar technologies can support emergency response and bolster resiliency to a global shock like the coronavirus spread. 

COVID-19 widens the gap in gender inequality

“The impacts of crises are never gender neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception.” – UN Women, September 2020

Before COVID-19, women were performing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, including household chores and cooking, both unpaid and invisible. Now, according to Energia unpaid care work in homes is increasing due to social distancing practices, school closures and home schooling, heightened care needs of older, at risk and sick people, and more cooking being done at home. Shopping, storing food, and procuring food and fuel are more stressful, risky and time-consuming than ever before.

Access to modern energy services and electrical appliances are essential to save time and labor linked to the increasing demands of the pandemic and to build future resiliency. Technologies like televisions and radios are now essential for distance learning, and clean cooking technologies like electric pressure cookers can reduce exposure to dangerous household air pollution and significantly reduce time spent preparing daily meals, freeing up time for other productive activities. Data shows that appliances contribute to more equitable distribution of household labor, since men are more willing to share housework using modern appliances.

The coronavirus exacerbates a learning crisis for off- and weak-grid communities

The pandemic, which forced learning institutions to close and kept some 1.2 billion students worldwide out of the classroom, has worsened a pre-existing problem. Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, millions of girls were out of school in Africa and South Asia—5.5 million in Nigeria and over 1 million in Ethiopia did not attend school yearly. While the situation varies between countries, 56% of the out-of-school children globally are girls.

With schools closed, technology has become the only option for families adapting to distance learning. Across the globe, appliances like radios, televisions and computers are enabling students to stay active and engaged with their coursework to meet learning targets. Kept at home to help with the growing burden of domestic chores, access to educational technology can close the education gap for girls and support learning at-home. But in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 80 percent of students are unable to connect to the internet and lack technologies like televisions and radios to access learning opportunities like their peers in more developed countries.

“Access to technology and materials needed to continue learning while schools are closed is desperately unequal. Likewise, children with limited learning support at home have almost no means to support their education,” explained Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education.

There is an opportunity—made more evident by the virus—to increase access to high-quality, energy-efficient off- and weak-grid appropriate appliances that enable distance learning for vulnerable student groups, like girls.

Off-grid technologies keep girls connected and learning through the pandemic

Governments are recognizing and promoting the use of off-grid solar-powered technologies to enhance learning opportunities for out-of-school youth. In Uganda, President Museveni unveiled a plan to procure 137,000 solar televisions and 10 million solar radio sets to support distance learning. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government is supporting the rapid uptake of solar home systems for education purposes. State-owned networks are broadcasting lessons via SMS, radio and television in Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Kenya. In Kenya, Google deployed Loon Balloons to increase coverage of 4G base stations.

Bringing education into the home would allow girls to participate in school activities when physical distance or domestic chores present a barrier. In a recent Efficiency for Access survey of almost 4,000 solar TV users in East Africa, 96% felt that their knowledge or awareness of current affairs, politics, and general knowledge had improved because of the TV. 79% felt their stress levels had reduced since using the solar TV, and 83% said that their family was more connected.

“As a family we watch movies and documentaries together and discuss about events we have seen on TV; this strengthens our relationship as a family,” explained one customer in Kenya. Access to news and information via off-grid televisions and other connectivity-enabling devices can contribute to higher levels of education access and foster positive behavior change, including financial decision-making, family planning, literacy, and in a pandemic, awareness of proper health and sanitation practices.

Biomass cooking poses a danger to women and girls

More people at home also means that the burden of unpaid care and domestic work has increased for women and girls. One of the most time-consuming and dangerous daily chores is the process of cooking with biomass fuels. Three billion people, or 40% of the world population, rely on polluting, open fires and inefficient fuels such as wood, charcoal, coal, and kerosene for cooking. These practices have real long-term implications on the wellbeing of women and girls.

Close to 4 million people die prematurely each year from illness attributable to household air pollution (HAP) from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves. Close to half of deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 years of age are caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from indoor air pollution. The health impacts of biomass cooking are exacerbated by the physical labor needed to collect fuel for daily cooking.

It is estimated that women provide 91% of households’ total efforts in collecting fuel and water, and women have an average working day of 11-14 hours, compared to 10 hours on average for men. A reduction in time spent collecting fuel and cooking enables women to spend more time on other activities— supporting distance learning, enabling income-generating activities, and allowing leisure time.

E-cooking technologies provide time-saving and health benefits

Electric pressure cookers (EPCs) offer a clean alternative to polluting biomass fuels, substantially reducing cooking time and eliminating dangerous smoke from daily cooking.  In the pandemic context, EPCs provides a wide range of benefits, from reducing personal exposure to harmful pollutants, to saving families valuable income spent on rising alternative fuel sources like charcoal and wood.

“The best thing about this [EPC] is having more time. I used to sit inside for two or three hours to prepare each meal [lunch and dinner], but now I can put the food inside the cooker and just leave. I go to my farm and can work there all day. It is especially helpful during the harvest season when we have so much to do. Now I come home and the food is ready,” explained Esther Matayo of Londoni, Tanzania. Esther participated in a pilot studying the uptake and impact of EPCs with microgrid customers in rural Tanzania. The majority of EPC users, like Esther, were women and reported that the EPCs were easier to use, safer and quicker than their alternative cooking methods.

In the Tanzania pilot, users also reported that health issues like eye irritation and coughing improved with EPC usage. Although customers still used biomass to cook certain dishes, EPCs did reduce exposure to HAP.

Access to appliances for learning and clean cooking remains stagnant

Quality, cost and availability pose a significant barrier to scaling gender-empowering technologies.  Today’s off-grid solar energy market is characterized by products with varying levels of quality and durability. Some are designed and manufactured well, while others fall short of expectations for safety, durability, and performance.

For many bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers, purchasing a solar product is a major decision and investment. While common charcoal stoves sold in markets across East Africa cost between $3-5 on average, EPCs can range from $90-200 USD. Similarly, a solar TV or radio and associated power system can range up to 500 dollars USD. The majority of EPC customers (86%) could not have afforded their appliance without a loan facility, while 99% of solar TV customers bought their appliance on credit. Spending limited funds on a poor-quality product could be devastating for the consumer and harm the reputation of off-grid solar products generally.

Establishing appliance quality assurance policies and implementation models builds a competitive global market where high-performing products help consumers unlock the full range of benefits that stem from having access to modern energy services. Beyond creating an enabling policy environment, appropriately designed product subsidies and financing schemes allow low-income customers access to life-changing technologies.

This is a guest blog developed by the Efficiency for Access Coalition. 

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