Women, energy and empowerment

By Charlotte Taylor and Emma Colenbrander On 28.10.2020 EnergyGenderGlobal Distributors Collective

This post is based on the article A fresh conversation on gender equality and inclusion in last mile distribution, originally written by Charlotte Taylor and Emma Colenbrander, for Sun-Connect Off-Grid News in March 2020. Charlotte and Emma work for the Global Distributors Collective (GDC); the GDC is hosted by Practical Action alongside implementing partners Hystra and Bopinc.

Women’s rights are human rights. Global evidence has shown the vital role of women’s economic empowerment in driving success for big businesses, in increasing national economic growth and in raising the health and wellbeing of their loved ones and wider communities.

Well-known data suggests that women reinvest 90% of their earned income back into their families (particularly their children’s education), in comparison to just 30-40% for men.

“If you can empower women economically, you can ignite a catalyst for greater poverty alleviation at the individual, household and community level that is unstoppable.”

Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking

Energy access and gender equality: it’s complicated

In the energy access sector, the idea of Sustainable Development Goals number 7 (universal energy access) and 5 (gender equality) being mutually reinforcing is not new.

Bibiana Obamo runs a thriving clean cookstove business in Kisumu, Kenya.

A wealth of research from experts such as ENERGIASolar Sister and Value for Women & Shell Foundation shows the unique role that female sales agents have in reaching into untapped markets and building trust with often risk-averse customers. Research from the Clean Cooking Alliance showed that women entrepreneurs in Kenya sold three times as many stoves as their male peers. Whitten & Roy report similar patterns of success.

Despite this, research from Ashden and ENERGIA suggests that men have more influence over purchasing decisions, have greater control of off-grid solar assets and benefit more from them than women do. For instance, 90% of female respondents surveyed in Tanzania reported that their time was more flexible after receiving solar electricity. However, this often increased their ‘double burden’ to both earn an income and complete domestic chores.

According to research from ENERGIA, 68% of women surveyed said they made decisions around energy access ‘jointly’ with their husbands, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they benefit equally. For instance, when it came to decisions around the position of fixed lighting in the household, lighting tended to be positioned in communal rather than the traditionally female-dominated area of the kitchen. This suggests that either the husbands have ultimate decision-making power about which rooms should receive lighting – or that women deprioritise their preferences in favour of their husbands and children.

Energy access is a critical step towards achieving gender equality – but it doesn’t guarantee a change to existing power structures within households and societies.

Thinking outside the box

The Global Distributors Collective (GDC), is a collective of 200 last mile distribution organisations in more than 50 countries around the world. The GDC supports these organisations to reach millions of unserved customers with life-changing products, including off-grid solar products, clean cookstoves and fuels, water filters and more.

When women entrepreneurs have motorbikes, they are able to travel to multiple small, local markets, like this one in Bangladesh.

Many GDC members have a strong focus on gender inclusion and/or women’s empowerment. Drawing on their experiences and insights, we’ve learned that sometimes the most impactful interventions to empower women are not the most obvious ones…

After recognising the particularly high churn rate of their female sales agents, Pollinate Group made changes to become a more inclusive workplace for women. This included restructuring to allow sales agents and operations employees to take out education loans for their children’s tuition and have access to the national health insurance plan. This gave employees a level of stability and security that enabled female sales agents, in particular, to continue working even when they were hit with unexpected challenges at home.

Recognising the potential barriers that female sales agents can experience within their own households, Smiling Through Light delivers ‘husband workshops’ for partners of their sales agents. This provides an opportunity to raise and address any concerns that husbands may have, while generating familial understanding and buy-in. As a result of these workshops, some husbands have emerged as particular champions of their wives’ businesses, including by supporting them to expand into new territories.

Research from Solar Sister also demonstrates that mobility, specifically access to motorbikes, is a major factor for success among their entrepreneurs serving last mile communities. This is because motorbikes allow agents to go further into rural communities – especially where there’s poor infrastructure – and avoid market saturation. This research concludes that entrepreneurs who owned a motorbike averaged 60% higher total sales than entrepreneurs using other forms of transport. While not an obvious intervention on face-value, challenging gendered norms around women’s mobility and providing loans to help entrepreneurs buy motorbikes, can have a significant impact.

The need for support and collaboration

Frontline energy companies – those who engage daily with customers on the ground – have an important part to play in encouraging inclusivity. But to do this properly and sustainably, they need the support of the wider ecosystem.

There is a real opportunity to leverage the customer relationships and insights that frontline energy companies have gathered and communicate them up the supply chain, to inform efforts across the sector. For example, the GDC is exploring how our members can work with product manufacturers to better integrate customer feedback – particularly women’s experiences – into product design, so that energy products intended to benefit women are designed from the outset with their preferences and lived experiences in mind.

Access to energy is a crucial first step in achieving gender equality – but it’s just the start of the journey. Ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking are needed to achieve meaningful impact for women and other underrepresented groups.