Women-to-women energy networks: essential piece of the puzzle for SE4All
Over the last three days, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the 2016 International Tech4Dev Conference, which focussed on innovation to achieve social impact. I was struck by the diverse backgrounds of the attendees and I witnessed some truly inspiring technological innovation to address a wide range of development issues, from climate change adaptation to humanitarian relief or medical innovation.
A key question that emerged both throughout the panel and breakout sessions is how do we ensure that new technologies reach the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) to achieve large-scale impact? I was delighted to have been invited to share some of our experience from working with over 200 social and environmental enterprises to address this question in terms of increasing energy access at the BoP.
Why are we still failing to address energy poverty?
While much has been achieved in the last two decades in terms of increasing energy access and the development of green energy technology, we are still failing to cater for 18% of the world population, particularly for those living in rural Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. To achieve the ambitious objective of ensuring access to modern energy to all by 2030, one of our biggest challenges is now to disseminate to energy solutions to rural marginalised areas. In addition, we are faced with another key challenge; providing energy for a growing population, while at the same time reducing carbon emissions; therefore the solution rests in the green energy sector.
Adoption of existing green energy solutions at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) remains a challenge due to the expensive upfront investments, the lack of infrastructure in remote areas, but also due to a lack of awareness and trust in new technologies, and due to the lack of technical knowledge and skills for the upkeep of those innovative products.
Social innovation to boost impact
As we witness a shift from technology-driven to stakeholder-oriented initiatives, the session “Social Innovations for Energy Access: Organizing Sustainable Energy for All” at Tech4Dev posed the questions how a more sustainable uptake of low-carbon technologies can be organised and how we can establish the right organisational infrastructures?
While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to clean energy distribution or adoption, the case of Solar Sister highlights how social and environmental small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) offer one concrete means of addressing these issues, primarily because they are, like many other SEED Winners, specialists in understanding local challenges and needs and with their extended local networks have the ability to reach the last-mile beneficiaries.
Solar Sister’s unique women-to-women energy networks
Solar Sister is one of the few organisations in the world to have built a global network of female solar micro-entrepreneurs to address energy poverty. It is through these women networks that the enterprise is able to introduce new energy solutions in the most remote off-grid areas, create new social relationships and meet social needs, which already benefit over 300,000 people in Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania.
But what is it that makes this model so unique and efficient and how does it contribute to the development pathways towards green energy for all?
Solar Sister addresses some of the most common challenges in last-mile distribution by using women’s most valuable asset: their social networks of family, friends and neighbours. It is this specific element of leveraging women’s local formal and informal networks based on trust that makes the enterprise so unique and sets them apart from other clean energy social enterprises.
Through their unique women-to-women energy network and dedicated women empowerment, the enterprise offers a wide range of high quality clean energy products with a long life-cycle, and has created an innovative value chain that works for those at the base of the pyramid by positioning themselves close to their markets, tailoring innovation to social needs, mitigating high costs through micro-entrepreneurship and by growing networks and expertise through multi-stakeholder partnerships. Subsequently, they have increased local awareness, trust and ownership in the innovative products, and succeeded in large scale and long-term uptake of the new technologies at the BoP.
Lessons learned: what works?
Solar Sister’s approach offers some important lessons for other players in this sector to address last-mile distribution:
- Women are the ones most profoundly impacted by energy poverty and they play a crucial role in household energy production, consumption and dissemination. Therefore, we need to recognise their role and understand their specific needs throughout the energy value chain. Without targeting women as an integral part of green energy strategies we will miss out on a substantial demographic of the energy market.
- Trust is crucial for the market penetration and we must use existing formal and informal networks to increase trust and local awareness as well as to obtain direct customer feedback to tailor products to local needs.
- Local ownership is paramount to the long-term uptake of green energy solutions and this can only be achieved by engaging with the whole community in de decision-making process, and by empowering all those involved in the supply chain through skills building.
- Clean energy access has a multiplier effect when linked to socio-economic empowerment and it is imperative to use entrepreneurship in the distribution model and use clean energy products and services to strengthen enterprises in other sectors.
- Strong multi-stakeholder partnerships are essential to provide good quality products, expertise and increase networks rooted in the community.
Next step for increased impact
For the green energy sector to develop to its full potential, it is now imperative for governments, practitioners, investors, donors and academics to join forces and consider how policies, regulatory frameworks, and markets need to be reformed in order to:
- create supporting ecosystems that will enable current eco-enterprises in the green energy sector to thrive;
- stimulate others, especially women, to take up eco-entrepreneurship in green energy; and
- increase the money-flow to SMMEs in the green energy sector as a channel for green growth.
See more details about the conference here.
Read SEED’s full paper online.