By: Ajaita Shah, Chinenye Anekwe, and Makoma Lekalakala
Safe hand washing and stocking the fridge with supplies may seem commonplace to those facing the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many people the world over these are luxuries beyond their reach. The basic safeguards experts recommend to combat the spread of the virus display the vast inequality we are faced with, namely that access to energy is not distributed equitably. The impact of this inequality is wide-ranging, with the burden of solutions often falling on women whose communities rely on them for all facets of their lives.
No one understands better than women how fundamental access to clean energy is to the well-being of families and communities. In the Global South their knowledge is firsthand, often based on a lifetime of experience having to use unsafe and heavily polluting forms of energy to cook and heat their homes. Women want more than electricity to cook, to allow children to study after dark and or help doctors to safely store vaccines. They want power for their businesses, fuel for the machines that boost productivity and incomes, and they need access to finance to make it happen.
The energy sector is a major contributor to economic and social development of any nation or society. It is the spine for productivity when energy access and energy poverty challenges are addressed sustainably. The vast majority of the 850 million people without access to electricity are vulnerable to climate change impacts, social and economic inequalities – a situation exacerbated partly by over-dependence on fossil fuel-based economies. Investments should be channeled to supporting organizational structures working with rural communities to increase access to clean and affordable energy, and thereby mitigate the impacts of climate change. Investors also need to enable opportunities for gender equity in the sector.
Women make up more than 49% of the entire world population and potentially half of the global workforce. Yet, in almost all industries, women still typically interact only with the finished products in the market without being included in decision-making processes. Female entrepreneurs reinvest 90% of their income toward their communities and families, creating a positive cycle of growth. Leveling the playing field by training women and empowering them financially is one of the quickest ways to create prosperous communities.
But ensuring this requires a change in mindset and a better understanding of the power of investments in women. Banks have capital and intent but aren’t structured to provide low interest loans to women without collateral or credit history. In order to drive access at scale, we need partnerships across the value chain: product manufacturers, last mile distributors, development organizations, rural entrepreneurs, financiers, trainers, and service providers to tackle this in a more systemic way. Investors are an integral component of the energy value chain. They inject capital that make innovative energy ideas and projects a reality. However, the desired investments for the energy sector in the most vulnerable parts of the globe have not been significantly realized due to issues of perceived risks. Investments should be channeled to supporting organizational structures working with rural communities to increase access to clean and affordable energy and thereby mitigate the impacts of climate change. Investors also need to enable opportunities for gender equity in the sector.
Investors can look at the work of values-driven institutions for models of success. In India, where 270 million people do not have access to 24/7 power, Frontier Markets has built a network of 2,500 women entrepreneurs called Solar Sahelis who use their own experiences with lack of reliable electricity to relate to households, and bring solutions to the forefront through marketing, sales, after-sales service and finance. They have helped more than 500,000 households access electricity. Moreover, they have earned over $2 million in income and impacted 3.5 million people through reinvestment in families and communities.
In Africa, Solar Sister recruits and trains women as both renewable energy entrepreneurs and advocates. Solar Sister engages with the primary producers and consumers of energy in these communities –women – to increase their understanding and trust in solar technologies. By gaining their full participation, Solar Sister has been able to support these communities as they leapfrog from dirty forms of fuel to clean, sustainable alternatives by reaching over 2 million users with clean energy alternatives via over 4000 empowered Solar Sister Women entrepreneurs. This movement has resulted in $46m energy-related customer savings, 238,372 kerosene lamps replaced with solar, and 15,251 people switched to clean cookstoves. (Solar Sister 2018 impact report). The impact of distributed clean energy alternatives on the climate is that 127,677 metric tons of CO2e has been avoided, to date (this figure calculated using the industry standard of 3 MT per cookstove over 10 years).
Governments also have a role to play in mobilizing financial resources for major and minor energy solutions for their people and by their people. Goldman Environmental Prize Winner EarthLife Africa have spearheaded massive campaigns pressuring the South African government to fund renewable energy in marginalized and impoverished communities. Building relevant local capacities in critical areas that bring significant participation in the entire energy value chain has the potential to redefine how energy projects are developed.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for strengthening communities’ actions against climate change and empowering women to create their own sustainable financial futures. In order to be resilient, responsive and sustainable – solutions for getting clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to the last mile must be community-based, community-led – and they must be driven by women. An investment in women is an investment in the future.