Hivos East Africa

East Africa

The sustainable power of women

4,000 female entrepreneurs bring renewable energy to over 2 million people

How do you get sustainable energy solutions for more than 2 million people in the most remote areas of Africa and Asia? And how do you make sure these solutions are really used? The answer is as brilliant as it is simple: appeal to the power of women. Since March 2016, the ENERGIA programme has been hosted by Hivos, and the results speak volumes. So Xenia Wassenbergh of Hivos’ People Unlimited Post sat down with two of the motors behind ENERGIA to find out more.

"At ENERGIA, we work to empower women by giving them access to modern energy," says Tjarda Muller, Communications Coordinator of ENERGIA at Hivos. "We train women entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia to sell sustainable energy products and services. Think of skills like market analysis, drafting a business plan, sales training, introduction to financial institutions, providing potential partnerships, and other such things. In addition, we do research and lobby actively to put renewable energy and equal rights for men and women on regional and national governments’ agendas."

2 million people with access to renewable energy

"The link between women's rights and renewable energy is more logical than you might think at first sight," says Tjarda. "We know that women are the ones who use the most energy at home. And from experience, we also know they tend to buy and use more sustainable products if another woman explains how the product works and what the benefits are. Over the last two years, we have supported about 4,000 female entrepreneurs, who in turn provide about 2 million people with sustainable energy equipment. Think of solar panels, solar lights and energy-saving cooking appliances."

Sheila Oparaocha, International Coordinator and Programme Manager of ENERGIA at Hivos, enters the conversation: "The women we work with have a strong network and go to places that are inaccessible to foundations or other agencies. We’re talking about villages or houses that are 15 kilometers beyond the end of the road - no pumping station nearby, no power. Sometimes you'll see the electricity cables run over such an area, but they don’t go all the way down to those villages or houses."

Access to energy prerequisite for a better future

"Access to energy is an important prerequisite for building a better future,” Sheila continues. “You need energy to run business equipment, cook, pump clean drinking water and for light to study for example at night or to do the accounting so you get more productive hours in one day. Moreover, with modern energy sources, you spend less time cutting firewood and can boost business efficiency. Whoever has renewable energy sources builds a better life."

From housewives to entrepreneurs

The 4,000 women who started with ENERGIA’s support do not create opportunities only for the people who buy their sustainable products. Sheila explains: "The women entrepreneurs’ own lives have also changed enormously. They started out as housewives, and are now seen as successful entrepreneurs. With their new position and status, they gain respect. They also set a very different example for their daughters. These women are the driving force behind social change."

"Economic empowerment of women is the real game changer. These women now make their own decisions and earn their own money. They have also become mobile to find their sales market. They get out of the house, sometimes on a bike or a motorbike to get to their customers. All of this directly affects the way their husbands, fathers and sons think about and talk about women. Some men even quit their job to help out their wife's business."

Another reason to rely on 'woman power'

Research shows there is another important reason to rely on women's power. Men invest 30 to 40 percent of their income in their families, while women invest 90 percent. When a woman earns money, the entire family moves forward. With strong families, you build strong communities. And strong communities make for strong countries.

Logically, therefore, ENERGIA continues to work hard work for women's rights as a prerequisite for positive change in addition to energy access. Or as Sheila puts it: "We need to make sure our views on the status of women and access to energy become part of the long-term strategies of regional and national authorities."

ENERGIA’s biggest challenge

What is the biggest challenge for ENERGIA at the moment? "Look – we can prove convincingly that this approach works, even when we talk with potential investors,” Sheila answers, “but the political climate is not equally conducive everywhere right now. Think of Brexit and the conservative policies emerging in Europe. Think of Trump with his 'America first' rhetoric. The forces behind these attitudes will not be so inclined to invest in development projects like ENERGIA. But also in the Netherlands, development budgets are being cut. That has me worried."

"We have great ambitions and even more passion, but in the end, we do need money to keep the engine running and support even more female entrepreneurs. And we need policy makers who realise that we live in a global community. A better life for families on the other side of the ocean also means a better life here."