Profiles in Power
Seven Women Entrepreneurs of Solar Energy
Released 6 June 2019.
Women are underrepresented in the clean energy sector. This article profiles seven successful founders and entrepreneurs in the solar energy field as examples of the possibilities for women to set up organisations and have pioneering roles in the clean energy sector. All seven are founders or co-founders of either for-profit or non-profit organisations. They share common key personal characteristics, such as passion and persistence, and faced similar barriers in securing funding, building partnerships, and educating stakeholders about the benefits of clean energy technologies. Key proposed actions to close the gender gap include targeted funding, access to networks, and supportive policies for gender equality.
A growing number of women are looking at the solar energy sector as a source of well-paid employment with strong opportunities for career advancement. Solar photovoltaic technology creates a high number of jobs due to the large workforce required for installation, sales, and operations and maintenance, so there is a wide range of opportunities available for women. In addition, many of the best regions for solar technologies, such as India and Africa, have particular needs for distribution and services related to solar energy products. The array of women profiled here demonstrates the broad range of employment opportunities in this sector, from entrepreneurship and business development to installation and maintenance; sales and distribution; manufacturing; construction and operation of solar energy plants; research and development; and software development.
In addition to its numerous employment options, the solar technology field is attractive because it provides meaningful opportunities to build economically and environmentally sustainable societies. The use of solar energy contributes to clean energy transitions and sustainable development, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG7 focuses on ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. This goal is crucial to achieving many of the other SDGs – from poverty eradication via advancements in health, education, water supply, and industrialisation to mitigating climate change to promoting gender equality, women’s empowerment, and access to decent work for all.
A close look at clean energy transitions underway around the world shows that women are underrepresented in the renewable energy sector, where they comprise an average of only 32% of the total workforce, 45% of the administrative workforce, 28% of the technical workforce, and 35% of the non-technical workforce, according to the International Renewables Energy Agency (IRENA). While in some professions within the clean energy sector, such as support services, women often make up more than half the workforce, they tend to be a minority in other areas, like the trades and operations segments or in positions that require scientific or engineering training. Women are also underrepresented in entrepreneurship, management, senior leadership, and on corporate boards.
While there is a tremendous potential to create employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the clean energy sector almost everywhere in the world, there is a concern that women will become more marginalised if gender equity policies and programmes are not proactively planned and implemented in the renewable sectors. In the absence of appropriately targeted training, education, apprenticeships, employment placement, financial tools and supportive social policies, transitioning to clean energy may exacerbate existing gender inequalities. It may also hinder broader human development, poverty alleviation and the employment equity goals identified by the SDGs.
This highlights the importance of understanding and documenting the successes women have enjoyed in this sector, as well as the barriers they have faced. Career opportunities in the clean energy sector do exist, and they can be made more visible and accessible for women and girls.
We know very little about the specific circumstances and factors that might obstruct – or enable – women to become entrepreneurs in clean energy. Fortunately, this topic is slowly starting to attract attention in research and policy circles. We aim to assist these efforts to identify and understand the factors that enable or constrain women’s employment in the solar energy sector by profiling seven successful women in this sector. All are founders or co-founders of either for-profit or non-profit organisations in different parts of the world. In each case, we seek to understand how they created their companies, what factors contributed to their success, and what barriers the founders faced.
Some common factors appeared in each case. Setting up successful organisations requires commitment and persistence, as well as an ability to network. Good partnerships are also necessary. These include both local and international collaborations that help to expand the scale and scope of the organisations.
Securing access to funding is the barrier common to each case study. At the early stages of operation, all seven women found it challenging to convince financial institutions, typically owned or operated by men, to finance their innovative ideas. This was particularly challenging for women who did not have an established reputation in business.
All understood the importance of gender equalityin the clean energy sector and were committed to lowering barriers for other women. They started their own organisations and played active roles in promoting better living conditions and gender equality for other women in their communities. They took a number of diverse initiatives: to improve local communities’ access to clean energy and water; enhance women’s access to education, jobs, training opportunities and health service; and promote gender diversity by working with and employing diverse groups of women and men.
Such contributions elevated the status and respect these entrepreneurs enjoyed and helped them expand their businesses sustainably.
The experiences of these seven women suggest that in order to close the gender gap in the clean energy sector, the three most important factors are access to funding, ability to network and form partnerships, and the existence of wider gender-specific goals or targets and pro-women social policies that can optimise performance and success. Of course, it is also important to adapt these factors to the specific context of each country or organisation to create optimal environments and opportunities for women in the clean energy transition.
Access to funding
Access to funding is the most common challenge faced by female entrepreneurs. Most of the funding secured by these entrepreneurs does not target only women. However, targeted funding for women would be very helpful for encouraging women’s participation in the clean energy sector and for levelling the playing field in entrepreneurship between women and men. Setting up funding or grants specifically for women would be a useful strategy to encourage their productive engagement in the renewable energy sector.
Examples of targeted funding or grants for women
Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-fi)
Housed in the World Bank Group and funded by fourteen governments and aims to give women in developing countries access to finance, markets, and training/mentoring/networks.
Women in Technology Venture Fund (WIT) of the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC)
This venture capital fund provides funding for women-led technology companies
Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant Program
Grants to help female entrepreneurs expand their businesses and make positive social and environmental impacts.
American Association of University Women (AAUW) Community Action Grant
Grants for American women or girls in STEM subjects to run non-profit organisations or non-degree research projects, with the aim of promoting gender equality, education and women's empowerment.
Amber Foundation Grant
Small grants for women who bring passion and interest to start new businesses.
Access to networks
The ability to access networks and build partnerships is also critical to ensuring success. Networking helps women meet others with whom they can share ideas, experiences and lessons learned, as well as receive mentoring support. Examples of women networking associations in the energy sector include Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE), Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE), Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition, Women’s Energy Network, and Female Founders Alliance.
In addition, setting country-specific or sector-specific goals and targets for women’s participation can also ensure that women gain equitable representation in the clean energy sector. Creating enabling interventions and environments to achieve goals or targets may include targeted funding, education, gender-equality and advocacy associations, and policy making to support gender equality and women’s empowerment in clean energy initiatives.
In summary, although the percentage of women in the clean energy workforce is still small, the women profiled embody the possibilities in this sector. They share some common personal characteristics such as a keen interest in developing clean energy sources and a commitment to other societal issues such as access to water, health, education, and gender equality. Often, in fact, a unique solar energy product or service was developed in response to a perceived need in these areas. What enabled them to succeed were their strong work ethics, persistence and confidence – characteristics that also helped them to successfully meet challenges to secure funding, build partnerships and educate stakeholders about the benefits of clean energy technologies.
Founder, Chairwoman, and CEO of SPCG Public Company Limited
"I can bring solar power to Southeast Asia"
Wandee Kunchornyakong is the Founder, Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer of SPCG Public Company Limited, a pioneer in solar farms and solar roof development in Thailand and the wider ASEAN community.
The company, which is listed on Thailand’s stock exchange, owns 36 solar farm projects that sell photovoltaic (PV) electricity back to the distribution grid in Thailand. It includes a broad range of PV businesses, including engineering, procurement and construction for solar farms and solar rooftops; in addition, it manufactures steel or metal roof sheets. It also plans to venture into other Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar. In 2017, the company’s total revenues were over USD 170 million, and it employed more than 1 000 people.
After years of working in the private sector, Wandee retired in 2006 and decided to enrol in a PhD programme with the goal of becoming a professor. But her mind changed in 2008 when the Thai government announced a feed-in tariff (FiT) to promote the deployment of renewable energy, including solar PV.
The policy enabled private companies to invest in solar farms and sell the electricity to the distribution grid. Having done her research on solar PV investment, Wandee was certain that such an investment would have a low failure risk given the successful PV deployment experiences of industrialised countries, the year-round availability of strong sun radiation in Southeast Asia, and the policy support offered in Thailand. Her personal concerns about climate change and sustainability issues motivated her to pioneer a solar energy business in Thailand.
As her personal funds were limited, Wandee needed to secure funding for her business. Thai banks were not interested in funding solar farm businesses, which were at that time a new and unfamiliar industry. Wandee too realised that it was more difficult for female entrepreneurs to secure funding from Thai banks than it was for male entrepreneurs, especially for those who lacked an established reputation in business.
Finally, Kasikornbank (Kbank) in Thailand funded 60% of the total investment cost. Wandee had to sell her land and house to secure the remaining investment cost. Her efforts finally paid off when her first solar farm, named “Korat 1”, was established.
When Korat 1 performed beyond Kbank’s expectations, Kbank recommended that Wandee find a good-credit partner to support her upcoming projects.The World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Clean Technology Fund (CTF) were obvious options. Wandee flew back and forth to the World Bank several times for discussions with the IFC and the CTF, which eventually agreed to give her blended finance.
The IFC provided a loan blended with concessional financing from the CTF, a donor fund that provides concessional resources for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects to middle-income countries. As a result, Wandee was able to find investors/funds more easily. This was a game-changer for the business: Wandee established 36 solar farms with total installed capacity of more than 250 MW.
Wandee’s personality played a major role in the success of her business. Her sense of purpose can be summed up by four words: think, believe, faith, action. Hard work is another key to her success. She starts her day early, works until late at night, and is confident that problems can be solved through teamwork. She cherishes the recognition she received recently from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change initiative, “Momentum for Change”, which granted her the Women for Results award for the role played by SPCG in reducing CO2 emissions by around 200 000 tonnes equivalent per year.
SPCG has a large female workforce. Women make up almost 60% of the company’s total workforce, though their share at the management level and on the board of directors is relatively low, at about 10%.
Wandee has also been working on issues related to women and children in Thailand. She is the president of the National Council of Women of Thailand (NCWT). She has contributed to NCWT by promoting gender equality in the country and by providing jobs, education, networking and training opportunities to improve women’s and children’s lives. The NCWT also provides awards to women in recognition of their contributions to the country. Wandee continues to volunteer in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities aimed at mitigating climate change and promoting education, while also balancing her time with family.
Co-Founder of Pollinate Energy
"A trusted and effective distribution network for urban poor communities creating access to sustainable technologies"
Monique Alfris is one of six Australians who co-founded Pollinate Energy in 2012. All were under 30, with little business experience and almost no money, but they shared a common passion for sustainable energy and improving energy access in the developing world. Previously, Monique had been working for a bank in Indonesia surveying customers to find out why they weren’t buying solar lights using loans – not a very new idea, she points out. She realised that the answer was obvious: “The product was really good; people knew they would save money, but the service that was provided with the products was terrible!” For Monique and her like-minded friends, the missing link was the distribution network. Eventually, Pollinate Energy would develop teams of micro-entrepreneurs, called “Pollinators”, drawn from the communities they serve, to distribute products and to collect and track payments for solar lanterns and other products such as medicated mosquito nets, gravity-fed water filters, and fuel-efficient cook stoves that most customers purchase with a five-week loan.
Pollinate Energy was not formed immediately. There were a number of learning experiences or “pivots” along the way. The journey began when a mutual friend operating an education NGO in Bangalore invited them to do a renewable energy project for the community he served who had asked him for electricity. The group chose a solar lantern product they were familiar with and decided to do a feasibility study to see how many people were interested in the lantern. They gave it a month.
A key moment occurred when a “willingness-to-pay” study, conducted by Katerina Kimmorley, another Pollinate co-founder, revealed that people preferred to pay more money for a solar lantern that also had the capacity to charge mobile phones rather than pay less money for a simple solar lantern. The mobile-charging lantern meant more opportunities for them: to call work, to call their families, to listen to music – in addition to light for children to study by at night, for cooking, or for socialising.
The community of urban poor that Monique and her co-founders serve in Bangalore, like many others in Indian cities, is an overlooked population. It’s seen as transient because most people live in tents, but, in fact, some people have been living in these encampments for five or ten years. Often they have had a financial shock, such as a wedding or a health crisis, so they move from rural areas in India and other states to Indian cities where there are opportunities to make more money. The census doesn’t pick them up, and they don’t have access to services if they are illegal immigrants; without proper documentation, banks can’t serve them even though this is a working population, with daily jobs that pay cash.
In the beginning, nobody believed this market existed or that it was reliable. Further, as Monique points out, “Distribution is a hard market to get into because the margins are not very high, and there is little money for equity or investment in it because you don’t need to build big factories. You don’t actually need very much money to do what you want to do – which means you’re not attractive to a lot of standard financiers.”
Pollinate decided to set up the distribution themselves and provide customers with affordable, interest-free payment plans. They developed an app for the Pollinators to track payments of $3 to $10 dollars in cash, going door-to-door. Pollinators usually come out of the communities they serve; often they have not finished high school and may not be able to read very well. The app was thus developed to meet their needs. Pollinate gives these micro-entrepreneurs stock on consignment and trains them to go into those communities to collect payments and provide services.
Moreover, their Pollinators can advance their business development skills. Based on Pollinate Energy’s impact assessment report in 2016, 6 out of 21 Pollinators were female, accounting for around 30% of the sales workforce. Pollinate Energy aims to improve the quality of life for these female Pollinators by offering employment security, financial independence and additional resources for the family, including for children’s education. These women have been empowered through their increased self-confidence gained in the course of their work to improve communities’ access to clean energy, work that has led to greater social standing and freedom for them.
Currently, Pollinators manage the distribution of products and payments to thousands of families. Pollinate Energy is now in five Indian cities: Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow and Kanpur.
Pollinate Energy contributes to three Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): no poverty, clean water and sanitation, and affordable and clean energy. As ranked by their customers, the most common benefits include brighter light; financial savings; the ability to cook after sunset; reduced sanitation problems; and more time for children to study.
In 2018, Pollinate Energy collaborated with Empower Generation (a US-based social enterprise empowering women to provide clean energy solutions in their rural communities in Nepal). To date, the company’s products have provided affordable and clean energy to 556 512 people in India and Nepal. By 2020, they aim to: 1) support over 1 000 women through business training and recruitment processes and enable them to become future leaders; 2) to positively affect over 1 million people; and 3) to reach over 4 000 families per month.
Founder and CEO of Blue Bridge Group
"We’re passionate about empowering our people to make a difference in their fields of endeavour"
Salma Okonkwo, a businesswoman and real estate developer, is the founder and CEO of Blue Bridge Group, a Ghanaian company with concentrations in seven business areas: energy, petroleum, real estate, security, agriculture, health and consulting services. Blue Power Energy, one of the companies in Blue Bridge Group, is an energy service company with a special focus on renewable energy. It aims to create a sustainable energy pathway in Ghana and other sub-Saharan African countries, where energy is a critical factor for economic growth. With good solar resource potential and falling investment costs, solar PV is a cost-effective choice for energy in sub-Saharan Africa. Blue Power Energy developed a 100‑MW solar PV farm in early 2019 in Northern Ghana, Ghana’s poorest region. Another 100 MW will be installed by the end of 2020.
Salma grew up in Accra and moved to Los Angeles for her university education. Upon graduating in 1994, she returned to Ghana to join an oil and gas company. While working in that company, she tried but failed to run retail gas stations. Salma then decided to start her own business bringing liquefied petroleum gas to Northern Ghana and trading diesel and petroleum wholesale under the Blue Bridge Group. In 2013, realising the potential of solar energy in Ghana, she started developing a large solar farm. Salma is one of the very few women in Africa who has succeeded in establishing an energy company, and, as a result, has increased the adoption of renewable electricity in Ghana.
After Salma decided to start her own business, she struggled to find funding. During the period when she was operating retail gasoline stations, Salma mortgaged properties belonging to her family and her husband’s family to raise capital. The large solar farm currently being built is expected to cost around USD 100 million, 30% of which is financed by loans.
Salma’s broad vision, her tenacity and her resolve to support the Northern Ghanaian people and enable them to improve their quality of life and live sustainably have been strong factors in her success. To date, Blue Power Energy has efficiently integrated renewable energy in the energy mix in Ghana, with a goal to provide 100% renewable electricity to the national grid to make society more energy sustainable and improve the quality of people’s lives.
Blue Power Energy has also created hundreds of jobs for women. This is important because women are migrating in large numbers from rural areas to Accra. Many of them are “Kayayei”: women who carry goods for customers in the city market. Salma wanted to improve the quality of these women’s lives and increase the educational opportunities available to them and their children. Salma is also opening a day care centre in Accra for children of Kayayei. Having access to education will improve their employability and quality of life in the future.
Founder of SunSaluter and of Roseicollis Technologies, Inc.
"It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to work."
Eden Full built her first solar product, a desktop solar car, when she was ten years old. Frustrated that the car could go only short distances, she started researching different ways to optimise solar panels. Despite the highly technical information she encountered, Eden continued to cultivate her interest in solar energy, demonstrating the strong curiosity and firmness of purpose that would serve her well in the future. Only five years later, at the age of fifteen, Eden founded Roseicollis Technologies and built a prototype of what would eventually became the SunSaluter.
The SunSaluter is an innovative solar-tracking device that follows the sun’s path throughout the day without using electricity, increasing solar efficiency by 30-40%, and simultaneously producing litres of clean water. This rotating system, which is customisable, can be built from everyday materials such as bamboo, nails, and hammers, using only the power of gravity and water.
On the right side of the device, a special container holds a water filter; on the left side hangs a counterweight. Every morning, the container must be filled so it is heavy enough to allow the solar panel to face east. A valve on the east side can be adjusted to control the flow of water so it corresponds with the sun’s path. Water is purified simultaneously while the solar panel generates electricity. By charging batteries and powering lanterns, the SunSaluter enables a decrease in the use of kerosene and other polluting fuels. These lanterns improve night-time mobility, a crucial issue in rural areas. Moreover, women and children spend less time collecting water from afar and have more time to spend on other activities.
Eden’s first opportunity for deployment came from a professor at the university she attended, who provided an opportunity to test the SunSaluter under real conditions in Kenya. Eden then received one of the “20 Under 20 Fellowships” from the Thiel Foundation, which allowed her to take a two-year leave from university to scale up the SunSaluter. The Thiel Fellowship, as well as other fellowships and support, were also instrumental in expanding Eden’s professional networks.
While working to scale up the organisation, Eden faced several challenges, including a lack of local understanding about the product, low levels of user education, poor assessment of service needs, and financing availability. Believing that the best way to get things started was to create a volunteer-based organisation, she collaborated with other non-profit organisations that helped her to develop locally appropriate methods to reach out to people in the communities. During her journey to make SunSaluter accessible to others, Eden has been eager to understand users’ needs in order to design a product suitable for rural users. Her direct and open-minded approach has helped her to develop mutually helpful working relationships.
The SunSaluter has won numerous awards including the Westly Prize, the Mashable-UN Foundation Startups for Social Good Challenge, second prize at the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, and the grand prize at the Staples-Ashoka Youth Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. Eden was also named one of the 30 under 30 in Forbes’ Energy category three years in a row. By the end of 2018, the SunSaluter had reached 17 335 people in 19 countries and reduced 3 672 tonnes of CO2.
The SunSaluter aims to continue to offer opportunities for people in rural communities to become entrepreneurs by providing ideas, mentorship and funding to implement the SunSaluter all over the world. As more women work towards developing new skills to improve their lives, gains will also be made in gender equality. Children and teenagers are another potential target group as the SunSaluter inspires them to get involved in the clean energy business.
Co-Founder and CEO of Sunrun
"Solar as a service"
Lynn Jurich is the co-founder and the chief executive officer of Sunrun, a leading US-based provider of residential solar, storage and energy services. Sunrun invented a business model called “solar as a service”, pioneered in mid-2007, that sought to unlock affordable energy in the residential rooftop sector and help households avoid the significant upfront expense of a solar system. Within the solar-as-a-service model, Sunrun offers several types of solar plans and services for residential customers, along with leasing and loan financing options as well as ownership options. Thus, residential customers are able to choose an affordable investment plan. Sunrun increases residential rooftop solar accessibility through its innovative business model.
The company also offers home battery storage services, including professional maintenance and monitoring. While Sunrun is headquartered in San Francisco, California and in Denver, Colorado, its services extend to 22 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with more than 220 000 customers. In 2017, the company’s total revenues were around USD 530 million. Sunrun has more than 3 000 total employees.
Lynn got the idea for the business after she went to the People’s Republic of China for a summer internship during business school. There she witnessed first-hand the impact of coal pollution on the environment. As a result, she became committed to creating a sustainable pathway for global economic growth, and she recognised that solar energy can be a solution. Lynn met Edward Fenster in graduate school, and, together, they co-founded Sunrun. Lynn decided to leave her venture capital career and started convincing people to sign up with Sunrun. The first customer was charged a fixed monthly rate for electricity without having to buy the panels for 20 years. This customer was also guaranteed savings of up to 20% on electricity bills.
One of the most challenging issues for Sunrun occurred in 2011 when the United States federal tax credits were delayed. As a result, the number of customers per month went down from 100 to 9. However, Sunrun still believed that its business model could work, and it was able to move forward with the established trust of the customers. Luckily, Sunrun was able to raise funding through venture capital, bank loans, and investors. Sunrun went public in 2015.
Being passionate and tenacious were crucial factors in Sunrun’s success. Initially everyone told Lynn that it was not possible to make this business model work, but she was confident that a customer-centred strategy could establish clean and affordable electricity services in the residential sector. She was able to think long-term and initiate a business model for rooftop PV that could target more residential customers.
Lynn was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2013, Forbes’ Women to Watch in 2015, and Fortune’s 40 Under 40 in 2018. Sunrun won an award for the Best Company Culture 2018, the Best CEO 2018, and the Best Company for Women 2018.
With almost 1 500 MW installed, Sunrun has offset around 2.7 Mt CO2, saving its customers more than USD 200 million. The business continues to grow, serving customers in the United States and creating more than 4 500 jobs. Further, the company is committed to taking real action to address workplace inequality issues. Sunrun provides equal leave and equal pay to its employees, and recruits a diverse workforce. Women comprise 50% of the senior leadership team, 38% of board of directors and 25% of workforce. Sunrun achieved 100% pay parity for its employees, regardless of gender, who perform similar work in similar locations across the United States. Sunrun also collaborated with GRID Alternatives, a US-based non-profit solar installer serving low-income households and communities that also has a woman CEO and co‑founder. The partnership includes job training and volunteer solar installations across the United States.
Co-Founder and CCO of Solar Sister
"Women are the largest untapped renewable energy source in the world"
Neha Misra, an energy economist, is a co-founder of Solar Sister. Created in 2009, this not-for-profit social enterprise addresses energy poverty, women’s empowerment, and climate change issues in sub-Saharan Africa (specifically, Nigeria and Tanzania, and, earlier, in Uganda). There are more than 600 million people without electricity access in this region. Over 700 million people rely on dangerous and polluting fuels such as kerosene. Solar Sister strongly believes that women are a key part of clean energy solutions for solving energy poverty and sustainable development in Africa.
Solar Sister buys a range of products from international clean energy technology manufacturers, such as solar lights, mobile chargers and efficient cook stoves, and builds local distribution networks to get products to entrepreneurs in off-grid communities. Solar Sister recruits and trains entrepreneurs from different sectors – including teachers, health workers, and small businesswomen – to set up their own businesses distributing clean energy products that they buy from Solar Sister to sell in their communities, earning money from product sales and commissions.
Neha started this enterprise after a conversation with fellow co-founder Katherine Lucey, an investment banker who worked on a community solar project in East Africa. At the time, both women were looking to set up a business to improve energy access in off-grid communities that would also empower women. Solar Sister was started using their own funds and drawing on volunteers; this was followed by support form external sources.
Solar Sister was an Early Entry Prize winner in Ashoka Changemakers’ Women I Tools I Technology competition and gained support from the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative. After having proved the business concept, Solar Sister received grants from United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) initiative and the US State Department’s Partnership on Women's Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER). Solar Sister combines public and private funds together with earned income through distribution of technologies to promote the role of women in clean energy.
One of the main challenges that Solar Sister encountered was to scale up their organisation given a lack of targeted funding for women so that Solar Sister entrepreneurs could reach other women in their communities. Moreover, most people’s level of awareness of clean energy in the communities is still low, which makes it difficult to introduce clean energy products. Solar Sister has had to deal with a lack of understanding of the crucial value of women’s participation in clean energy solutions, thus they continue to emphasise and promote the importance of women in clean energy development in rural communities.
A diverse team, local leadership, and access to international partner networks are significant success factors that have enabled Solar Sister to set up networks for providing clean energy products in Africa to meet everyday needs. In addition, imagination, creativity and diligence have been central to Solar Sister’s success in bringing a unique business model to Africa that has improved women’s livelihoods and communities.
Solar Sister is a women-driven business, whose operations are 100% dependent on local entrepreneurs, and their country programs are led by strong women from those countries. In addition, Solar Sister is keen to collect meaningful data to improve their business strategy and scale up their organisations. Findings from research conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) highlight that Solar Sister has created significant individual, family and community impacts through their business model.
Regarding the impact made on individuals, women are able to learn and develop their business skills as well as gain confidence and respect from their husbands and their communities. At the family level, women can contribute to their families’ income and play a more important role in decision making for their families. Moreover, solar lanterns and efficient cook stoves help reduce expenditures on kerosene, thereby preventing health problems that arise from using unclean fuels; solar lanterns also make it possible for women and their children to study longer in the evenings.
In terms of the impact on communities, Solar Sister entrepreneurs support each other by exchanging their experiences and creating good relationships within the communities. In addition, solar lights promote community safety and allow community members to undertake night activities. To date, over 3 500 Solar Sister women entrepreneurs have reached 1.5 million people in Africa with clean energy products. More than 75% of rural Africans are still waiting for clean power. Solar Sister aims to grow clean energy businesses locally in order to fill this gap.
Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE CARE Solar
"All women have the right to deliver children safely in clinics with reliable lighting and power"
Laura E. Stachel is the co-founder and the executive director of WE CARE Solar, an acronym that stands for Women’s Emergency Communications and Reliable Electricity. WE CARE is a California-based non-profit organisation that manufactures solar power suitcases to provide electricity for underserved maternal health facilities primarily in Africa and other rural regions of the world where health workers do not have adequate electricity in order to ensure that mothers and newborns are safe.
Maternal mortality accounts for over 300 000 deaths a year worldwide. Most deaths result from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, including haemorrhage, infection, eclampsia and obstructed labour. About 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries where health services may lack equipment, medication, and infrastructure, including reliable electricity.
The WE CARE Solar suitcase was originally designed to support obstetric care, but it can be adapted to a range of medical services. Within the yellow suitcase, there is a solar panel, battery, phone charger, and maternal health kit (including fetal Doppler and rechargeable batteries). The suitcase design addresses the crucial features of safety, low maintenance, durability, simplicity and expandability. With electricity access from WE CARE Solar suitcase, health workers work to ensure safe motherhood and to reduce maternal mortality in remote areas.
Laura is an obstetrician-gynaecologist with many years of clinical experience. While pursuing a public health degree, she took an opportunity to go to Nigeria in 2008 to study maternal mortality by observing medical care in state hospitals. She witnessed how the lack of reliable electricity affected the ability to provide emergency obstetric care to mothers and newborns. Critical procedures were delayed or cancelled; electrical equipment couldn’t be used when the electricity was interrupted; and at night, health workers struggled to provide care by kerosene lantern.
Laura discussed these issues with her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator. Hal first designed a solar electric system and a portable and off-grid solar suitcase for Laura to bring to Nigeria while waiting for the larger installation. Her Nigerian colleagues were impressed and used this kit to promote safe motherhood. As a result, maternal deaths went down by 70% over a year after the hospital has the larger solar electric system installed. After this project was completed, Laura was asked to help other hospitals, including small ones in rural villages. Consequently, Laura and Hal decided that the suitcase-sized demonstration kit could be a solution for clinics needing power and, thus, co-founded WE CARE Solar.
They first relied on students and volunteers to assemble and deliver solar suitcases. But, as demand increased, volunteer-based production was not able to keep up. Laura began searching for funding and received financing from various sources including from the Blum Center for Developing Economies and a substantial grant from the MacArthur Foundation that allowed WE CARE Solar to scale up manufacturing of their solar suitcase.
The career change from obstetrician to entrepreneur was challenging. She was inexperienced in developing an organisation, manufacturing, supply chains, logistics, international programming and management. Support from mentors and University of California Berkley business students helped to address business-related issues. In addition, funding sources were not easy to find. It took time before Laura secured sufficient financial support to start up WE CARE Solar.
Being knowledgeable about and dedicated to providing adequate maternal health care were essential to the success of WE CARE Solar. Because she understood the problem, Laura wanted to ensure that rural clinics had reliable electricity sources with which to provide efficient health care services. The teams and partners she relied upon – more than 45 international NGOs and United Nations agencies – helped her expand her reach by identifying clinics in need, conducting solar installations, and monitoring the solar suitcase programs. Laura believes that solving a problem requires a great deal of persistence and hard work.
WE CARE Solar contributes to three SDGs: good-health and well-being, gender equality, and affordable and clean energy. Their experience shows that technology alone is not enough. Education and training are also necessary for health workers to use and maintain the solar suitcase. Moreover, WE CARE Solar has also developed an educational program empowering youth to learn about solar energy and get them inspired with a real-world application. WE CARE Solar also trained a cadre of Women Solar Ambassadors to lead their capacity-building trainings around the world. Moreover, WE CARE Solar launched their Light Every Birth Campaign, calling upon governments to ensure that all women can access safe motherhood in health centres with reliable electricity. The first two Light Every Birth countries are Liberia and Uganda. WE CARE Solar is dedicated to expanding their programs. Currently, over 1.8 million mothers and newborns have been served in health centres using solar suitcases; over 3 500 health centres were equipped with solar suitcases; and over 13 000 health workers have been trained. WE CARE Solar continues solar suitcase installation programmes to save lives of mothers and newborns with access to reliable electricity.
Aksornchan Chaianong is the first recipient of the IEA C3E fellowship established last year by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Established in 2018, the IEA C3E Fellowship provides job experience for a promising student to work at the IEA on energy issues related to women’s empowerment.
During Aksornchan’s tenure at the IEA, she made valuable contributions to the activities of C3E TCP and the Equal by 30 Campaign, including authoring this report. Aksornchan is currently completing her PhD in Energy Technology, which focuses on the economic impacts of distributed PV/battery on electric utilities, at the Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Thailand.
The author would like to thank all seven organizations for providing valuable inputs. The report benefited from comments from experts within the IEA, including Yasmina Abdelilah, Bipasha Baruah, Rebecca Gaghen, and Cecilia Tam. Experts from outside the IEA also provided helpful feedback, including Per-Anders Widell (Ministry of the Environment and Energy, Government Offices of Sweden); Athikom Bangviwat (The Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi); Caroline McGregor (Sustainable Energy for All); and Christoph Menke (Trier University of Applied Sciences).
Thanks also go to Naim Darghouth (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory); Astha Gupta (IEA); Yoko Nobuoka (IEA); Chanathip Pharino (Chulalongkorn University); Ben Shapiro (Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc.); and Nicole Thomas (Australian Delegation to the OECD) for their suggestions on women to profile and for providing contacts. Finally, the author is grateful to the IEA Communications and Digital Office for their assistance with editing and production; in particular, Astrid Dumond, Therese Walsh and Jad Mouawad.
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