#WomenInEnergy: “We need to make the invisible visible”

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Katherine Lucey

Katherine Lucey is the Founder and CEO at Solar Sister, an innovative social enterprise whose mission is to achieve sustainable, scalable impact at the nexus of women’s empowerment, energy access and climate justice. It empowers women with economic opportunity and clean energy.

Solar Sister’s model is that each Solar Sister Entrepreneur buys her lights and cookstoves from Solar Sister, then sells and delivers them to her family, friends and neighbours. They get essential services and training that enable them to build sustainable businesses in their own communities and bring clean energy directly to their customer’s doorsteps.

Since 2010, Solar Sister has supported more than 6,800 entrepreneurs and reached 3 million people. Their belief is that everyone everywhere deserves clean energy. Women can transform their communities and leave no one behind while democratizing light and energy.

What do you think has been the impact you have had as a woman CEO/Founder on the sector?

It is essential to have women represented at all levels of business – founders, board members, CEOs, designers, engineers, sales people… As a woman CEO I am filling in but one of these necessary roles. I may be one of the first women founders of an energy company, but I will not be the last. I recognize that there is a profound responsibility of serving as a role model and example, because the real change comes not when we have the ‘first’ women CEO, but when it is unremarkable to have a woman CEO because at least half our companies are led by women.

Image: Solar Sister

How do you approach gender from your organisation?

Our goal is women empowerment. We recruit women and provide them with business coaches and trainers. They are divided by areas and, in each area, they hold monthly sisterhood meetings of 4 to 12 entrepreneurs. They receive 12 months of business training and also belong to a group, which allows them to network and support one another. The business coach is available at any point, even beyond the 12 months.

For the women, their first priority in most cases is to support their children’s education and be able to feed them three meals per day. Their second motivation is to contribute to the household and not depend on their husband when they have one.  The entrepreneurs are also passionate about bringing clean energy to their communities and improving their lives and the lives of their neighbours and surrounding communities.

Do you know the composition of your workforce overall? Do you look at it also segmented by level of responsibility?

86% of our entrepreneurs are women and, across the workforce, it’s 83%, so we’re primarily a women’s organisation. The founders are women, the country directors are women as well as most of the program managers. We do have some men, who are great, but it is the minority.

What are the policies you take to promote women to grow within your organisation? 

Our entire program is built to promote the growth of women entrepreneurs and help them achieve their highest potential. Our business model is designed using a women-centred approach that incorporates women’s specific needs and abilities. For example, women are overwhelmingly responsible for the care and management of family and household. Even if they are seeking to earn income, they still bear responsibility for taking care of the children, cooking dinner, tending the garden and livestock. They aren’t able to leave home from 9 to 5 for a typical job. That is why the Solar Sister business model allows the women to build a business that suits her needs, whether that is working one day a week, every afternoon between lunch and dinner, or from a store that she has built into the corner of her house. Flexibility and women driven design opens up the income generation opportunity to them in a way that more traditional and rigid requirements does not.

Image: Solar Sister

Do you look at your customers disaggregated by sex? 

We firmly believe that everyone, everywhere deserves access to clean energy to power their lives, so we sell to men and women in the hardest to reach off-grid communities. We believe no one should be left behind in achieving 100% access to renewable energy. In order to offset the market failure that disproportionately leaves women behind, we do intentionally include women. In other words, we are not creating a separate market system that only reaches women, we are changing the current market system to include women. In order to measure the success and rate of that change, we do disaggregate the data.

What are specific actions your organisation is doing to empower women as customers and users of your products?

Women are the managers of household energy. That is why the network of women entrepreneurs is so effective in reaching the last mile customer. Because women entrepreneurs really ‘see’ the customer, they can speak to her and understand her needs. This woman-to-woman connection builds the bridge of trust that allows women to take the risk of trying new technology. Women talk to women, they see the benefits the products bring to their families, they see the entrepreneurs making a living and they get inspired.

Do you have cases where customers have become employees and what process did they follow?

Indeed, most of our entrepreneurs first were customers. They connect with the entrepreneurs, get inspired and decide to join as well. Sometimes, husbands need to be convinced about this being actual work, but when they see it produces money, many times, the husbands get involved and support the business. Many of the entrepreneurs are widows or retired schoolteachers.

Image: Solar Sister

Do you take specific steps to empower women as citizens too?

The training program that the women follow teaches them basic economic skills like book-keeping and planning, they also build their confidence and learn sales techniques, so for example, when COVID came around and was tough on them, they could plan around it thanks to their training. The skills that they learn during the program they can apply beyond their work.

And as Angelina, one of our entrepreneurs from Tanzania says: ‘When you have money, people listen to you’.

Can you tie female participation throughout your operations with positive business results?

Most of our entrepreneurs are women and their results are great because they relate to the users, who are women. They talk to each other and understand each other. Women are not always the ultimate decision-makers in the home, but they do use the products so they have a strong influence on the purchasing decision.

What do you think are the key initiatives the sector can take to enable further women’s involvement both in the workforce and as customers?

We find GOGLA very useful because of all the data it provides, and data drives impact, so keep doing what you’re doing. One thing we find is missing is a customer profile of women and of last-mile communities. If the profile exists, it tends to be of a man because they are the owners, so creating a mapping of these areas will inform the women where they can find their customers and that will make them more efficient. We need to make the invisible visible.

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