In rural Nigeria, a woman named Iniobong opened a maternity clinic to serve her community. It had no electricity, so she used candlelight or kerosene to deliver babies and care for mothers. One day, a woman named Blessing brought a solar light to her prenatal check-up. It sparked Iniobong's interest, so Blessing told her that she could sell it and other clean energy products herself if she became a "Solar Sister Entrepreneur."
Iniobong started out by buying solar lights and a better cookstove to use at her own clinic. Today, the money she earns as a Solar Sister entrepreneur goes into running her clinic and providing care for the women in her community.
"When it came time to bring Blessing's son into the world, there was still no electricity, but both the patient and nurse were armed with bright solar lights," said Caroline Mailloux, director of engagement for Solar Sister. "They successfully delivered Blessing's son into a bright room with no open flames or dangerous fumes."
Solar Sister is a nonprofit that is working to eradicate energy poverty by empowering women to be entrepreneurs. It's a women-run direct sales network that distributes clean energy technology such as solar lights, mobile phone chargers and clean cook stoves to communities across rural Africa.
The International Energy Agency estimates that 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, and in some areas of the continent, off-grid households spend $0.50-$0.60 per day on kerosene lighting and basic charging costs. And according to Mailloux, many people are forced to utilize toxic, expensive alternatives like kerosene or paraffin, which can cause burns and respiratory illness, and also costs up to 40% of household expenditures.
Women are critical to the eradication of global poverty. According to the World Bank, if all women had equal access to productive resources, up to 150 million fewer people would go hungry every day.
"Women are often overlooked and underserved by economic opportunity," Mailloux said. "Solar Sister's approach ensures that women's voices are heard and needs are met as we scale our impact."
Katherine Lucey, founder and CEO of Solar Sister, got the idea for the organization when she was on a trip to Uganda. While there, she met a rural farmer in Mpigi named Rebecca, who used three solar lights to completely change the lives of her family and community for the better. Katherine came back to the US and teamed up with Neha Misra to co-found Solar Sister.
Africa has one of the highest rates of female labor participation in the world, and women typically work more hours than men. Most of that, though, is unpaid housework or family work, which has become the norm. And those types of jobs—cooking, cleaning, teaching, and helping with family businesses, for example—often require the most light, energy, and power. So it stands to reason that women would be the most likely to use solar equipment for solutions to these energy problems.
The women buy the products in bulk from manufacturing partners in Solar Sister's country office headquarters in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria. It is then transported via bus or boat to the sales associates. First, women usually sell to their families, and then to others in the community. They make anywhere from $10 to $250 a month, which can supplement the family income and radically change their lives.
"The greatest surprise is the difference that one light and one empowered woman can make.," Mailloux said. "Cost savings, time savings, more hours of light to run a business - the ripple effect is truly impressive."
There are many stories of women like Iniobong. There's Theresia, from Mpigi, Uganda, who was recently asked to run for elected office after becoming an entrepreneur. There's Joan from Kitumba, Uganda, who recently bought her own plot of land with money she made from being a Solar Sister. There's Umoh Ebango, a poultry farmer from Nigeria, who started purchasing clean energy solutions for her farm because her sister was a Solar Sister entrepreneur. She decided to become an entrepreneur herself after she used solar equipment.
Then there's Grace Wakodo, from Uganda, who earns money as a Solar Sister entrepreneur to care for her 10 children—four her own, and six others adopted after their parents, her in-laws, died of AIDS. The money she earns has doubled the family's income, allowing them all to attend school and eat healthier.
These are just a few examples of the 1,500 women entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Uganda, and Tanzania. Most of the money Solar Sister has is from donations and grants, but the organization is generating more revenue—18% of its income came from commissions on sales last year, which is a big jump from the 8% in 2010. The organization is expanding and will be operating in Kenya in 2015, with plans to continue growing throughout Africa.
"We receive inquiries every day from all over the world inquiring about our expansion into new communities and countries," Mailloux said. "In reality, to enter into a new country, Solar Sister must first put in place the necessary legal registrations and build the local team to provide this support."
Most African countries receive 325 days of sunlight a year, generating about 4 kWh and 6 kWh of energy per square meter. This provides immense opportunities for clean energy solutions, and worldwide, companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Recently, SolarCity led a $7 million round into Off Grid Electric, and PIC, Africa's biggest money manager, just invested $1.8 billion in South Africa solar projects.
Solar is experiencing a movement in Africa, as solar panel prices decrease and accessibility to clean energy solutions, the internet, and mobile payment systems increase. A critical aspect to its momentum, though, is through grassroots organizations like Solar Sister, which offer affordable, empowering financing models to help expand clean energy and sustainable economies throughout the continent.
"This is to the benefit of not only women, but society as a whole as women are most likely to re-invest the money earned into their families, thereby reducing poverty and-best of all-inspiring the next generation of girls and women to achieve," Mailloux said.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.