From basket weavers to salt farmers: the women leading a renewables revolution

From basket weavers to salt farmers: the women leading a renewables revolution

People call us Mama Solar,” says Solar Sister entrepreneur Hilaria Paschal. In her native Tanzania, Paschal and her fellow basket weavers buy solar lights and clean cookstoves from Solar Sister, a social enterprise empowering women to bring clean energy to rural African communities, and sell them to friends and neighbours living without access to electricity.

The women pay for the products with savings, income from other businesses, funding circles or through Solar Sister’s startup funding packages. Paschal has sold products to more than 1,000 people, channelling the income into her children’s school fees and expanding her basket weaving business. Now, she mentors other women keen to gain economic independence.

Research by the UN’s Industrial Development Organisation suggests that women in developing countries are largely responsible for community and household energy provision. They often walk long distances to collect fuel and buying costly kerosene oil to light lamps. Women and children also suffer most from inhaling smoky fumes in the home.

Yet many lack the opportunity to learn about sustainable energy or participate in its expansion. A number of projects across the developing world are hoping to tap into rural women’s entrepreneurial potential and community knowledge to help increase access to clean energy.

Female entrepreneurship

Solar Sister has helped some 2,000 women across Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria become entrepreneurs since 2010, selling solar lights, mobile phone chargers and clean cookstoves to more than 300,000 people in off-grid communities.

The social enterprise has developed a female-led direct sales network, with country leaders and business development teams supporting on the ground Solar Sister entrepreneurs. With their 5-10% commission, many Solar Sisters create or expand other businesses, such as cotton farming.

The model of female-led clean energy entrepreneurship is not just confined to African countries. “Our experience shows that contrary to prevailing stereotypes, women are the highest adopters of technological solutions, particularly solar,” says Ajaita Shah, founder and CEO of Frontier Markets, a social enterprise employing women to distribute clean energy products in India. “They’re passionate about earning an income, and they have a clear insight into their communities’ needs.”

In rural Rajasthan, 20-year-old Hansa Chaudhary looked after her family’s crops and cattle while dreaming of pursuing her education. As a solar saheli (Indian women friends) with Frontier Markets, she is bringing clean energy technologies to remote, off-grid families, walking the “last mile” for retailers who would not otherwise be able to reach them.

Chaudhary has learnt to explain the benefits of solar; market and sell solar lanterns; keep detailed customer records; and arrange for repairs and servicing. In her first year, she earned R24,000 (£275), nearly three times the average rural Rajasthani woman’s annual income.

In addition to supporting her family, she has been able to fund her bachelor’s degree, which could lead to a more senior role with Frontier Markets or a civil service job in Jaipur.

Frontier Markets has recruited and trained 250 solar sahelis across Rajasthan. It also uses community insights to develop its own products (such as a long range torch to help tend to cattle at night). The social enterprise has sold some 127,000 products in five years, 30% of these through solar sahelis. It estimates having saved nearly 600,000 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent to removing nearly 127,000 cars from the roads) by helping families switch from fossil fuels to clean technologies.

Similarly, the Global Fairness Institute’s salt workers economic empowerment programme is helping 30,000 women in the salt-farming region of Surendranagar, India, to boost productivity and save costs by switching from diesel to solar power to pump salt water into salt pans. The women save an average of 45% annually on maintenance and fuel costs (£460 v £850), according to GFI.

Salt farmer and 40-year-old mother of five Bhavnaben Mangabhai says: “By investing in a solar pump, I’ve saved R9,000 (£100) a month, which has enabled me to buy two acres of salt farm for me and my son, and pay for the education of both my sons and daughters.”

Bhavnaben is not alone. Women typically invest 90% of their income in their families, and the benefits extend well beyond their immediate households.

“As women entrepreneurs become advocates for clean energy in their communities, it creates a multiplier effect, catalysing health, education and economic benefits for the wider community,” says Allison Glinski of the International Center for Research on Women.

Solar Sisters are building financial independence, self-confidence, and increased respect from their community,finds an ICRW study. In addition, they’re enabling families to make savings on costly fossil fuels and stay productive for longer, helping to raise the whole community’s economic prospects. For example, Solar Sister customers in Tanzania are saving £2.50/week in reduced kerosene costs (a 79% saving), money that can be directed towards more nutritious food, school tuition fees and books, and medical services.

Reliable solar lighting also means children can continue studying in the evening, and people feel safer outside. Health among women and children is likely to improve with less frequent exposure to noxious fumes in the home, which may also increase attendance at school, particularly among girls.


“The number of women-led enterprises is rising, but it’s limited across the value chain,” says Neha Misra, co-founder and chief collaboration officer at Solar Sister. “We’re currently seeing pockets of innovation, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Among the barriers are social conservatism in rural communities, and a lack of access to finance and education. One organisation helping to fill the skills gap is Barefoot College, set up to help rural communities in the least developed countries build resilience and self-sufficiency. The college says it has helped 784 women in 80 countries gain the knowledge to become solar engineers, teachers and clean energy advocates. Graduates have helped 550,000 people access clean lighting, replacing 520m litres of kerosene.

To help connect women clean energy entrepreneurs and enable more women to promote clean energy, the US Department of State launched the wPOWER Hub in 2013. Based at the University of Nairobi, the wPOWER Hub is collaborating with partners including the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, CARE International and Solar Sister with the aim of helping 8,000 women across Africa become entrepreneurs by 2018, providing funding and facilitating knowledge-sharing. wPOWER’s director, Wanjira Mathai, says they have already reached nearly 4,000 women.

She concludes: “If we are to cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, we must replace inefficient, fossil fuel-based cooking and lighting with clean technologies. Women can play a critical role in making this happen. We are targeting women because we know we will succeed.”

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.