By Making It Magazine
Katherine Lucey, the founder and CEO of Solar Sister, introduces a social enterprise that provides women with training and support to create solar micro-businesses.
More than 125 years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, 1.6 billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – still rely on kerosene lanterns and candles for light. They spend up to 40% of their family income on energy that is inefficient, insufficient and hazardous. Widespread use of kerosene has an adverse impact on local air quality as well as on global climate change. Poor lighting, smoke, and rudimentary lanterns are responsible for large number of infections and burn injuries.
Solar Sister is a social enterprise that is tackling the problem of energy poverty with an innovative market-based approach that empowers rural women in Africa with economic opportunity. Using an Avon-style business model that deliberately reaches out through women’s social networks, Solar Sister solves the problem of ‘last mile’ access to clean energy and brings solar technology right to the doorstep of rural households.
Using a micro-consignment business model, the women are provided with a ‘business in a bag’ that includes inventory, sales training and marketing support. The women are empowered to bring access to a portfolio of clean energy technologies including solar lamps, solar cell-phone chargers and radios and clean cookstoves. Clean energy provides light and power that saves lives, provides connectivity, improves public health, provides livelihoods and combats climate change. The women become their own bosses and beacons of light, hope and opportunity for their communities.
Solar Sister is a market-based programme, with revenues from sales of solar lamps providing the engine for economic growth. Solar Sister is a social business, using the power of the market to achieve a social goal of distribution of clean energy technology. It is the emphasis on “opportunity” rather than “aid” that attracts and rewards women who are motivated to build successful businesses that benefit the whole community by providing access to breakthrough technology.
Today, even though portable solar LED lighting technology is an affordable solution; lack of access has kept the products from being adapted by rural households living in the dark. Ingenuous clean energy products for the base of pyramid markets are not much good if the poor can’t use them. Solar Sister’s sales proposition is simple: at a starting cost of about US$20 for a solar lamp, customers get a lighting source that is eight times brighter, cleaner and safer than piecemeal kerosene – the cash expense is paid back by the cost savings of buying kerosene in two and a half months. This translates into brighter light for families, and savings of more than US$100 a year on fuel.
Solar Sister reaches out to the women who would otherwise not have an opportunity to become entrepreneurs and provides them with a holistic package of working capital, business training and marketing support. Women represent 70% of the rural poor most affected by energy poverty. But more importantly, women are primarily responsible for energy usage at the household level. Clean energy technology will not be adapted on a widespread basis if women are not part of the solution.
Solar energy can provide connectivity as well as lighting, and some of our best selling products are solar lamps that also provide power to charge mobile phones. The phenomenal success of mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa is possibly the most important development story of this century. Having access to the energy to power those phones is a correlating opportunity that the Solar Sister entrepreneurs are able to meet. One customer not only charges her own phone, but has set up a micro-business charging her neighbour’s phones as well, earning a steady daily income.
A founding story of Solar Sister is that of Rebecca, a rural farmer in Mpigi, Uganda, who chose to put a solar light in her chicken room. Rebecca knew that chickens only eat when they can see, and by increasing the hours of light, the chickens ate more, and were healthier. They laid more eggs, improving the economics of her operation and providing income that allowed her to buy seeds, and eventually a goat, pigs, and even a cow.
From the simple improvement of a single light, Rebecca built a farm and eventually a school where she teaches children to read and write, and also how to do small plot farming. With a little bit of light and opportunity, women like Rebecca have the power to improve their own lives.
The strength of Solar Sister’s enterprise solution comes from the women themselves. It is their own ingenuity and commitment that builds their business – we are just offering them the opportunity to help themselves. Even small amounts of electricity can dramatically improve the lives of women living with acute energy poverty. Creating economic opportunities for women in turn has a multiplier effect on social and economic progress of their communities, and our world.