How a Revolution of Women-led Initiative is Eradicating Energy Poverty in Africa

In 2013, Mama Ada’s husband died leaving her with four children to raise and put through school.  She started a plantain selling business and moved into a one room hut with her 4 children to keep costs down and allow her put as much as possible away to be able to afford their education. Every day, you will find Mama Ada at Kabusa market, Abuja, selling her plantains for between N500 and N700 leaving her with a profit of between N50 and N150 naira per bunch.

However in January, 2015, Mama Ada registered as a solar sister entrepreneur. She started by buying a small solar lamp for her house and a fuel efficient charcoal stove. She used these products in her house and carried them around her community to show as marketing samples.

Today, she makes an effective sales woman as she gives testimony of the use of the products based on her experience. When she sells a lamp, she makes an average of N600, and this has taken her monthly earnings to an average of N30, 000 and growing. She has also taken the role of energy adviser in her community and people have now taken to calling her Mama Ada Solar.

Like Mama Ada, a good number of women in Africa have been plunged to poverty after the death of their husband. They find it difficult to take care of the needs of their family as they are often face with harsh conditions most of which are often caused by lack of socio-economic empowerment or the family of their spouse takes over the property acquired during the marriage.

However, in Africa, Solar Sister — an organisation founded by former investment banker, Katherine Lucey, is helping to empower women, especially those in rural communities, to be financially independent and be an advocate of safe energy – an initiative that is quite laudable given the growing concern on climate change crisis in the world today.

Solar Sister, a social enterprise uses the “Avon Lady”-type model to distribute solar equipment in Africa.  Over the past five years, the organisation has trained more than 1, 500 women in Nigeria and three other African countries while helping the saleswomen reach their goals.

As part of our Community Champion Series, we had an interesting chat with Solar Sister Community Manager in Nigeria, Olasimbo Sojinrin. Olasimbo has been working in the realm of climate change and renewable energy for over ten years. She has helped manage several partnerships that strove to educate secondary school students on the issue of climate change and she also provided a strong voice in the drive to create climate change legislation.

She talked about the challenges the company approach to empowering women and eradicating energy poverty even in the most marginalised communities in Africa.

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Introduce yourself to our readers and tell us your own story as a solar sister?

My name is Olasimbo and I am country manager for Solar Sister Nigeria. I joined Solar Sister in May 2014, after several years of social and developmental work. I have a firm feminist background and studied in the Environmental services faculty in University, hence the fight against energy poverty came naturally. It was a blend of the two things that I am extremely passionate about – gender and environment.

What does a typical Solar Sister do?

A Solar Sister is an energy adviser in her community, a person who cares about how energy is used for cooking and lighting. (She is) a radical entrepreneur passionate about bringing modern clean energy solutions to families and households.

 How is Solar Sister affecting problem of energy poverty in Africa?

Solar Sister is an innovative social enterprise eradicating energy poverty by combining women power with green power. We combine the breakthrough potential of life transforming clean energy technologies with an Avon style direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in Africa.

Solar Sister is hereby creating a ripple effect of increased households savings, improved health, better education opportunities, thriving small businesses and women who are confidant, strong and role models for their communities.

Why are Solar Sister activities focused in Africa generally and the women-folk in particular?

As the primary consumers of household energy, women are critical to the successful adaptation of clean energy technology solutions. We believe that investing in women is thus a prerequisite for large-scale adoption of clean energy technologies at a grassroots level.

Solar 5Does your organisation target women in rural communities, especially in Nigeria where you oversee?

Absolutely, we target the rural areas and reach the most remote communities also called last mile.

Solar Sister solves the problem of ‘last mile’ energy access and brings high-quality, affordable clean energy solutions right to the women’s doorsteps through our network of Entrepreneurs. Solar Sister Nigeria has grown to have a presence in 14 states across Nigeria.  We presently operate in Adamawa, AkwaIbom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Enugu, FCT Abuja, Kaduna, Lagos, Nassarawa, Osun, Oyo, Plateau and Rivers.

That is impressive. So what products do  Solar Sister provide and how does your organisation empower these women to make targeted sales?

Solar Sister Nigeria offers a range of products for portable solar lighting, mobile phone charging and clean cook stoves to our entrepreneurs to sell in their communities and earn additional income for their households. We equip our Entrepreneurs with a unique way of selling by providing tailored solutions to each customer’s energy problems. This way of selling leaves a lasting impression on customers and makes every sale conversation count.

We also offer no credit hence entrepreneurs have to save up to purchase products. In Solar sister, we believe in teaching to fish rather than giving fish, we are aware that charity is not a sustainable model and we work with our entrepreneurs to establish the best payment methods for the products.

With the name ‘Solar Sisters’ it dignifies that women are actively involved in the project?  Are there ‘solar brothers’ too?

Yes, in Solar Sister we believe in inclusion and we have Solar Brothers all across our organisation, from the board to the leadership, to our staff and also our entrepreneurs.

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As an advocate for climate change progress, how do you think solar energy can transform Africa?

For the adoption of Solar in Nigeria like any other new technology, it needs to be deployed with a lot of education and awareness. Unfortunately poor government solar contracts –mostly solar street lights and community bore holes – are visible and failing. This colours the very limited knowledge of people about the technology as the only visible examples are not working. So as you can imagine, this make a difficult task, even harder.

But we are equal to the task, we have pre-empted this prejudice and developed our unique way of selling and educating communities. Women are integral to this; women that refuse to be dampened by the inefficiencies of our government to provide us with the basic amenities and have taken the bull by the horn. In Solar Sister, we have taken charge and refuse to be victims. We have decided to embrace technology and continue to identify affordable solutions to our energy problems.

It has been established that Investing in a woman is not only the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do. When you empower a woman, you empower a community! Women make the decisions every day on how energy is managed.

How do you envision the solar industry in Africa ten or twenty years from now?

I believe the ideal world is one devoid of energy poverty, where you never need to pay for your energy source, I think that’s the way nature designed it, it’s just taking us several years to come around and accept it, but what better way to provide power than through the sun. Having a clean and free energy source to provide electricity. I think Africa’s energy problems can be tackled. Solar Sister is a network of women entrepreneurs committed to the vision of tackling Africa’s energy poverty. We dedicate our time to recruiting, training and supporting women entrepreneurs to succeed. Just like the revolution we are experiencing in the telecoms industry, I believe a similar trend is eminent in the energy sector. Energy has such a substantial impact on our standard of living. And providing a scalable women’s enterprise is the way to go.

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What should we expect from your organisation in the nearest future?

Solar sister is currently expanding its operations to 20 states across Nigeria within the next 2 months. We will continue to spread the message of light, hope and opportunity to the most remote communities in Nigeria.

How can people, individual support Solar Sisters work? You can support us by visiting our website: www.solarsister.org to donate. It costs about $500 to launch a Solar Sister Entrepreneur. You can also give information on areas in Nigeria that you know are experiencing energy poverty by sending an email to infong@solarsister.org or call +234 8099907272. We seek to partner with local and international organisations that align with our mission to provide our business opportunity and expertise to women in various communities.

 

Busayo Sotunde is a prolific writer with special focus on Business, Entrepreneurship, Reproductive Health and other development issues in Africa. Her articles have been published by different outlets including Investing Port and Ventures-Africa.com. She has a penchant for reading and sustainable development. Follow Busayo on Twitter @BusayomiSotunde

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