Solar Sister: Empowering African Women Through Enterprise With Solar Technology
Solar Sister is a social enterprise that empowers women with an Avon-style distribution system for solar technology, enabling them to earn income and improve their businesses with clean solar light.
Even small amounts of electricity can dramatically improve the lives of women and their communities living with acute energy poverty. Rural farmholders particularly benefit from the economic and environmetal benefits of solar technology. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women produce up to 80% of basic foodstuffs. Giving these women access to life changing solar technology is an important improvement that increases productivity and income.
Solar Sister takes on the social, environmental and economic impacts of energy poverty using an innovative market based approach that empowers women through economic opportunity. With an Avon-style distribution program for solar lamps, Solar Sister combines the breakthrough potential of micro-solar lighting with a deliberately women-centered direct sales network. The powerful engine of women’s economic empowerment drives a scalable program of clean energy adaptation in remote villages, resulting in direct improvement in household income and quality of life and a significant contribution to improve local air quality and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) mitigation.
Empowering women is key to progress and prosperity. Creating economic opportunities for women has a multiplier effect on social and economic progress of their communities and our world. Solar light opens the door to better health, improved education and further economic and environmental benefits.
Solar light creates important benefits for rural farmers. A founding story of our organization is the story of Rebecca, 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.
Solar Sister lamps improve productivity by allowing for productive work in the evenings, and are also able to be used to charge cell phones to increase connectivity, allowing farmers to check on prices and market more effectively. In additon, replacing the need to purchase kerosene, which can cost up to 40% of a households income, with solar lamps frees up valuable income.
Solar Sister creates critical, lasting change in the lives of the rural poor, women and girls living with the devastating effects of energy poverty in rural Africa. In doing so, it becomes a beacon of light, hope and opportunity.
Go into any schoolyard with a geeky technological gadget, and you will be surrounded by a jostling circle of boys wanting to see it, try it out, take it apart and see how it works. This is as true in New York City as it is in Kampala. It’s not that girls don’t have the smarts to understand technology, it’s just that the cultural and educational bias has been to exclude them and keep them on the other side of a persistent and pervasive technology gender-gap. If women and girls are not intentionally included in technology advances, then they are unintentionally excluded.
In rural Africa, the technology gender-gap is even wider, and has devastating consequences as girls miss out on education and opportunity because they do not have access to simple technological solutions to their everyday burdens. Without adequate light, girls miss out on study time, as they normally attend to domestic chores after school, unlike their brothers who do their school assignments immediately when they get home from school. So the girls fall behind in school and are more likely to drop out. Without adequate light, women are hampered in their ability to care and provide for their families as they struggle to cook dinner by the poor light of tadoobas — open flame kerosene lanterns — and spend too much of their time and the family’s income on gathering fuel.
Since women and girls are the procurers and managers of fuel use, if they don’t have access, the technology is not adapted at the household level, and the women and girls are left, both literally and figuratively, in the dark.
Solar Sister Solution
The most important step to end poverty is to create employment and income opportunities. Solar Sister does just that by providing the women with a “business in a bag”, a complete business start-up kit including inventory, training and marketing support , empowering women to run their own independent micro-businesses selling solar lamps. The women form a by-women, to-women distribution network that is strengthened by women’s natural circles of family, friends and community. This direct-sales network brings the solar technology right to the women’s doorstep and provides income opportunities for the women.
It is the “Sister” in Solar Sister that creates a space for women to gain exposure to the technology and become comfortable adapting it to everyday use. Because Solar Sister deliberately reaches out to women and girls we can listen to and respond to their particular needs. Our women-centered approach allows us to create an open and welcoming environment for women to “get their hands on” the technology. Once the women adapt it for their own households, they are the best, most effective sales force in the world – as they use their natural networks to spread the word and provide valuable, trusted product endorsement. The women rely on their own user-based expertise and existing networks to achieve success. The benefits to the women entrepreneurs are direct and immediate: they have income to support their families and improve their lives. In addition, the benefits of access to solar light extend to their entire community as families improve their household economics by replacing expensive kerosene with solar light.
Solar Sister is a self-sustaining, scalable program that closes the gap by bringing the technology to the women through trusted channels (other women in their community), and by providing education, training and women-centered marketing support. The women become change agents in their communities, providing access to clean, dependable solar light for homes, schools and clinics. Solar Sister’s investment in women entrepreneurs generates a lifetime of income and a path out of poverty for an entire rural family while also improving the environment.
Plan and Execution
Solar Sister’s strategy is to partner with local women’s groups to benefit from their existing infrastructure and deep roots in the community. Our initial partnerships include The Mother’s Union of Uganda (MU), The Maranatha School (Maranatha), and Project Diaspora’s Women of Kireka (WOK) project.
The $12,000 Africa Rural Connect Prize will provide working capital financing for inventory costs associated with investment in 20 new Solar Sister entrepreneurs. The Initial inventory for each Solar Sister comprises 2 cases of solar lanterns. Solar Sister provides co-investment of training and ongoing marketing support for the Solar Sister entrepreneurs. The proceeds of sales provide income to support ongoing operations and provide an income through commissions to the Solar Sister entrepreneurs. In this way, the initial investment of the ARC Prize is leveraged through the power of the market to generate lifelong income and benefits.
Solar Sister uses a micro-consignment method: Solar Sisters pay for the lamps that they sell when they sell them, retaining a commission on each sale and providing a margin to Solar Sister to cover the cost of operations. Thus the inventory loan is repaid each time the inventory is turned over and invested in a new inventory. The Solar Sisters are conservatively projected to sell 2.3 lanterns per week: resulting in inventory turnover of 5 times per year, providing income to the Solar Sister of $450 per annum each. Solar Sister supports this investment with a co-investment in training and marketing support to ensure that the women are empowered to build successful businesses. After the initial investment, the sales of solar lamps provide a sustainable income stream that will enable the women to continue to earn income and provide profits that will be reinvested back into the community in the form of community benefit renewable energy projects, such as solar water pumps for drip irrigation systems.
Economic and Social Impact/ Return on Investment
The economic benefits are directly measurable and provide benchmarks for measuring the health and social benefits. In addition to the direct benefit of economic empowerment by the Solar Sister entrepreneurs, Solar Sister generates broad social and environmental benefits as well. Public health benefits of displacing fuel-based lighting with solar lanterns are great. According to World Health Organization, about 1.5 million women and children die due to respiratory, heart and other soot-related harm every year. Kerosene is responsible for a large number of burn injuries and fires, which disproportionately affect women and girls in rural areas. Solar Sister is committed to displace these adverse affects of kerosene by expanding use of solar products in Africa.
- In bold terms, each Solar Sister generates $4,350 in revenues each year, distributing 120 solar lights that benefit 600 people each year.
- Every dollar invested in Solar Sister is continually reinvested in women’s economic empowerment, generating a lifetime of income and providing ongoing financial, social and environmental returns.
- Each solar lamp improves the quality of life with improved light quality, an important reduction in indoor air pollution, and $90 per year economic benefit per household by displacing the need for costly kerosene.
- Each solar lantern in its useful life of 10 years displaces the use of about 500-600 litres of kerosene, thereby mitigating about 1.5 tonnes of CO2.
- In summary: 20 Solar Sisters will sell 7,200 solar lanterns in the three year period displacing over 3.96 million litres of kerosene and mitigating nearly 10,800 tonnes of CO2.
Real World Impact
Solar Sister’s mission is that of light, hope and opportunity. Solar Sister empowers African women and girls to be everyday changemakers by being in charge of their well being as well as for the common good of their families and communities. Its far-reaching real world impact encompasses economic, environmental, health and social benefits as described below:
Economic Impact: The key to the Solar Sister model lies in the self-sustaining economics of the distribution program. Every $1 invested in Solar Sister generates over $20 in revenues that support the program. The economic benefits are directly measurable and provide benchmarks for measuring the health and social benefits. Each solar lamp improves the quality of life with improved light quality, an important reduction in indoor air pollution, and $90 per year economic benefit per household by displacing the need for costly kerosene. Every dollar invested in Solar Sister is continually reinvested in women’s economic empowerment, generating a lifetime of income and providing ongoing financial, social and environmental returns.
Employment and Empowerment Impact: Solar Sister’s strategy is to provide direct employment to 100 women entrepreneurs over next one year bringing the benefit of solar light to over 62,500 people with cumulative household economic benefit of $1.12 million. The ARC prize will help us reach this ambitious goal with support at this key period of growth. This will be scaled to 1000 Solar Sisters over next three years and 10,000 Solar Sisters over five year period. To manage and support the Solar Sister grassroots network, local management teams will also be employed creating an ecosystem of clean energy services. Solar Sister will also have indirect benefits for small-businesses and community through schools, clinics, and Internet kiosks. One of the most far-reaching benefits of the Solar Sister program is the enabling impact of electricity on productivity, as shops are able stay open in the evenings with the benefit of solar light and home-based workers are able to continue to be productive after dark also. This is particularly important in rural areas where most families are engaged in subsistence farming which occupies their daytime activities, and the ability to use the evening hours for study or work is a tremendous gain in opportunity.
Environmental Impact: Solar Sister works for the benefit of people, planet and pocket. The economic and employment benefits listed above bring benefits to the pockets of women entrepreneurs and their rural customers . At the same time, the program yields significant environmental benefits. Each solar lantern in its useful life of 10 years displaces the use of about 500-600 litres of kerosene, thereby mitigating about 1.5 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide ( CO2). The 1.6 million solar lanterns sold by the Solar Sisters in the five-year period will displace over 900 million litres of kerosene and mitigate nearly 2.5 million tonnes of CO2. The program will thus help mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change in a modest but important way.
Public Health Impact: Displacing inefficient and harmful fuel-based lighting with solar lanterns will have health benefits for small farmers and their communities. According to World Health Organization, about 1.5 million women and children die due to respiratory, heart and other soot-related harm every year. Kerosene is responsible for a large number of burn injuries and fires, which disproportionately affect women and girls in rural areas. Solar Sister is committed to displace these adverse affects of kerosene by expanding use of solar products in Africa.
Founder & Executive Director
e-mail: [email protected]
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