#WomenInEnergy: “You need to go for it”

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Marianne Walpert

Marianne is the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Simusolar, a social enterprise focused on providing people in rural Tanzania and Uganda with access to renewable-powered productive-use equipment (PURE) and the flexible financing plans to afford it. Their primary focus is on Solar Water Pumps (SWP) for smallholder farms, and solar fishing lights for nighttime fishers.

However, Simusolar is not Marianne’s first venture as an entrepreneur. Throughout her professional life, she has been passionate about solar technology and its potential to be part of the energy solution. With a background in physics, she likes science and understanding the world around her. A passion ignited by time spent canoeing in nature with her father –  an engineer and an environmentalist. In the US, Marianne created three different businesses in the photovoltaic space,  first in Boston, then in California, where she fought to pass the net metering bill that made photovoltaic in homes viable in the 2000s.

As she realized how much solar could change people’s lives in Tanzania, Marianne moved there in 2007 and created a nonprofit focused on solar lighting in a market where the technology was little known. They introduced solar lights in the Mara region, realizing that the cost of off-grid solar lights was still too high for the farmers in Tanzania.

As PAYGo and mobile money became more popular and available in Tanzania, she started Simusolar, interconnecting with mobile money carriers for solar home systems (SHS), before switching from residential to productive use products in 2016. Ultimately, the goal is for people to improve their livelihoods with modern, solar equipment.

Their research indicated that the most impactful technology for boosting livelihoods in Tanzania was solar water pumps since most of the population are farmers. Initially, Simusolar were selling one solar pump, but the organisation now offers 12 different pumps and helps farmers to assess their needs in order to offer them the most appropriate solutions. Currently, 90% of their sales also include PAYGo financing allowing the farmers to swap expenditure on their diesel pump with payments for the solar system or allowing them to increase their yield size in order to help pay off the system.

Image: Simusolar

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

I understand the importance of having role models, so I’m happy to be representing women entrepreneurs and to share the message with women that you need to go for it, you cannot wait for anyone to make things happen for you. You have to be the one to do it.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered as a woman CEO?

Honestly, I think as a woman it’s probably easier to run a company in Tanzania than it is in the US. As well as the challenge of gender, I also find that age can be seen negatively when fundraising in the startup environment. My guess is that funders look for a similar profile to them, and they are often men. So the most challenging part for me was raising funds. Luckily for Simusolar my Co-Founder, Michael, came on board very early on bringing his finance background as well, so we balance each other nicely.

How do you approach gender from your organisation?

We try to have a gender balance within the organisation. This is important for us throughout our structure. We are majority-women owned and our management is balanced. It is a little less so within our sales force because the type of conditions of the job make it less attractive to women. However, gender is a key aspect that we take into account in the hiring process. 30% of the sales force is female and we hope to continue increasing the overall percentage. We go the extra mile to find the right women candidates. Sometimes, it can be a bit harder, but usually, these candidates do exist!

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

We put our main focus on the hiring process, making sure we have a diverse pool of candidates and that we have qualified women in key roles. Our CFO is female and, although from the beginning we have had women in leadership roles. We made a conscious effort for our leadership team to be more diverse and, although it may be hard to measure business results that came from it, it definitely feels better this way.

Do you look at your customers disaggregated by sex?

We do, and Acumen is funding some of our gender work. We wanted to understand how to better address the women farmers’ market and we needed to do research to understand their challenges. The majority of our farmer customers are male and men are the ones signing the contracts most of the time. However, we know women and children greatly benefit from our SWP because they don’t have to carry heavy buckets of water through the fields.

Approximately 10% of our customers are women, who also juggle their other responsibilities like child-rearing. This, for example, makes it harder for them to attend meetings. We are undertaking research to better understand the needs of women farmers and how to address them appropriately.

Image: Simusolar

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

We have a strategy in place to identify gaps and pilot potential solutions. I can give you some examples based on the data we have collected. Many times women farmers work in groups so we will be doing village-level presentations, we will be giving gender sensitivity training to our sales force, we want to offer special financing plans since they have a harder time accessing finance, we want to address the affordability gap. We are also adapting the design of the pump to make it more portable. We will be giving tech training for women this year and we will be following a control group to compare repayment rates.

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

We think the best way to empower women as citizens is by enabling them to make a better living. Economic empowerment leads to citizen empowerment.

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

For me, the key is funding. Women founders are not getting the same access to finance as men are and that is an issue. I would ask investors to look at their portfolio and answer the question: how many women-led companies are they funding?

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