african tech

03.11.11

Lighting The Way For Women in Africa

Can high tech innovations bring change to developing nations?

In many regions of Africa, kerosene is expensive, electricity is unreliable, and women are living in poverty. But sunlight is free – and plentiful. Enter Solar Sisters, a program that turns African women into entrepreneurs who sell solar-powered lights that charge during the day and provide illumination at night. As a result,  children can do their homework later, stores can stay open, and families can have nighttime lights without the dangers of open flames, dirty fuel, or hot oils. Just as importantly, the income from the lights allows women to invest in their families and gain status in their communities.

“If you’re poor, people think even your brain is so poor that you can’t contribute anything,” says Eva Walusimbi, herself a Solar Sister in Uganda. “Every day, women can contribute by selling these lights.” In an afternoon panel entitled “Women, Tools, Technology: A Global Leapfrog,” Walusimbi shared powerful stories of families who lost everything in house fires caused by candles and children who’s noses were turned black from kerosene smoke, as well as examples of how innovations like Solar Sisters both improve the basic quality of life for women in Africa and provide much needed income – both lifelines in developing countries.

After all, women can’t go to school, serve in political office, or fight for change if they’re too busy farming, gathering fuel, and trying to find clean water. But if technology exists to make those tasks easier, women flourish – and so does their community. “As women are able to increase their incomes through new technologies, to become more efficient through farmers and laborers, the money they are earning goes back to support their family,” investing in education for their children, purchasing more nutritious foods, and spending less time away form home says Jocelyn Wyatt, the social innovation lead at IDEO, a design and consulting firm.

Getting that technology to the right places, and modifying it to meet the specific cultural and geographical needs of women in need, is still a challenge. Much of the farming and housing technology being developed is done by men living far from the communities most in need, who are unconnected with the end user. The result, says Wyatt, are products that are “too heavy to carry, don’t fit in with the lifestyle or don’t meet the cultural needs” of the women who would most benefit.

Thankfully, global corporations, NGOs, and independent entrepreneurs are working hard to ensure that new technology directly benefits women – and that women have access to the tools that can change their lives. (In fact, it’s from an Exxon Mobile initiative aimed at designing women-friendly technology that this panel took its name.)

For Walusimbi, the difference technology has made in her life is literally the difference between night and day. “It’s changing the women’s lives,” she says of the Solar Sister lights.  “For a long time African woman in Uganda, have been behind the curtain.” Now, thanks to programs like Solar Sisters, they are able to step into the light.