SEATTLE — An innovative solution to poverty in rural Africa has been posed by the nonprofit organization Solar Sister. By capitalizing on the business opportunities that lie within the solar power industry, Solar Sister has created a network of female entrepreneurs who can support themselves and their families by distributing clean energy products to their communities.
The organization was founded in 2009 by Katherine Lucey after a career as an investment banker. The idea for Solar Sister was born from a trip to Uganda, where Lucey met a rural farmer who she witnessed change the lives of her community with just three solar lights. When she returned to the United States, Lucey partnered with Neha Misra to bring her vision for Solar Sister to life.
The premise of Solar Sister is simple—teach women to build businesses around selling clean energy products—and the results are profound. The organization has created a “deliberately woman-centered direct sales network” that brings clean energy technology to rural communities in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria.
Solar Sister teaches women in rural communities how to sell solar lighting and other clean energy products. These women then have the opportunity to buy products from manufacturing partners and the goods are transported to their respective communities. The women—or rather, sales associates—begin by selling to their families and later to their communities, which can provide them with between $10 and $250 a month.
Lucey notes that “this gives [women]a chance to earn money in a way that is a lot more steady—they have control over it and that money can come into the family.” Women play a critical role in Africa’s labor force, with one of the highest rates of labor participation in the world, and work more hours on average than men. However, much of this work is unpaid and requires energy—Solar Sister helps to address this need while providing women monetary compensation for their work.
The success of Solar Sister can be attributed to the fact that the organization deals not only with the issue of economic opportunity for women in rural African communities, but also the dire issue of access to electricity. A shortage of electricity can burden communities with health hazards and financial strains that further harm quality of life. According to the International Energy Agency, 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have inadequate access to electricity and resort to harmful alternatives instead, such as kerosene and paraffin.
Inadequate access to electricity can further hinder someone’s ability to escape from poverty. Not only is electricity necessary for economic growth, but it is also a key aspect of how people rise above subsistence living. Solar Sister has successfully found a way to turn African women into entrepreneurs and provide energy to rural communities, two critical factors that could alleviate poverty for many.
– Jennifer Faulkner