03.15.11

Women | Tools | Technology: Out of the Shadows and Into the Light

Empowering women in developing countries through alternative technologies was the subject of an afternoon panel discussion during last week’s “Women in the World” annual summit. Moderated by Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey, the conversation focused on the innovations enabling women to become more productive contributors to their communities. Participants included ExxonMobil’s Vice President of Geoscience Pam Darwin, Social Innovation Lead of IDEO and head of the newly launched IDEO.org Jocelyn Wyatt, and Solar Sister entrepreneur Eva Walusimbi.

In the heart of Times Square and its animated neons and blaring LED signs, it seemed ironic to be talking about Eva Walusimbi’s small solar lantern. But as she held up one of the kerosene lamps that it has replaced, and the panel explained the innovation to a rapt Hudson Theatre audience, the idea outshined anything the Great White Way could serve up.

Eva is one of the first entrepreneurs of Solar Sister, a social enterprise that helps women create solar micro-businesses that provide light for their communities as well as household income. These days, it’s also an ExxonMobil partner. With a distribution style that resembles the Avon woman-to-woman approach, Solar Sister sells solar lights and recruits other women throughout Uganda to follow in the endeavor’s entrepreneurial footsteps. Eva’s Solar Sister work is not only helping to provide economic opportunities to many women, but it’s bringing its resources and light to 1,600 orphans and other vulnerable children at Uganda’s Maranatha schools, which she established with her husband more than twenty years ago.

For the fortunate among us, tales of how Africa’s women have no reliable electricity and must spend the entire day hauling 20-liter jugs of water and heavy firewood for miles seem almost unfathomable. Not only is time poverty a big issue, but so too are the health risks and safety hazards associated with using traditional energy like kerosene for lighting lamps. Walusimbi shared stories of children whose noses are regularly black from inhaling kerosene smoke and families whose houses have been lost to fires caused by candle use. But she also described how Solar Sister has begun to improve the Ugandan quality of life.

Defining the “leapfrog” concept playing out in real time in the developing world, Cheryl Dorsey explained how less efficient technologies are being skipped over for smarter ones. “We already know that women make up half of the world’s population, do two-thirds of the world’s work, yet make only 10% of the world’s income. We also know technology changes the way you live, work, and what you’re able to do, and that the barriers to access and scale are substantial.” She also shared the glaring stat that most of the 1.6 billion people in the world without reliable electricity are women in rural developing countries, and that the pursuit of energy sources not only consumes women’s time and income but in many ways jeopardizes their well being.

What ExxonMobil and its partners have been doing in places like Uganda verges on groundbreaking. Validated by the findings of a white paper they sponsored last year, the energy company took the lead in helping innovators harness tools and technology, like solar energy, to help women change their lives, according to Pam Darwin. She is responsible for the company’s geological and geophysical operations. But she’s also been participating in ExxonMobil partnership with the International Center for Research on Women and the Ashoka’s Changemaker’s to expand the reach of high-impact sustainable energy to help women economically.

“Study after study shows that there’s really a multiplier effect. Ninety percent of women’s income goes right back to the community. So they improve the education and the health of the children, of the families, of the communities. We as a company live and work in these communities and see the importance of this. And while we are obviously in the job of trying to work on energy for the world,” according to Darwin, “what’s really important for us is technology development. We’re intent on scaling it up. That’s really the avenue we’re trying to take.”

Jocelyn Wyatt talked about how having a human, or in this case, “woman-centered approach to the design of a technology” was key to its success. Wyatt, who works for IDEO, a design and consulting firm tackling global challenges, said that while a design is critical to a technology’s success, it especially needed to understand the needs of who the end-user was. For instance, “a lot of times products are too heavy for a woman to carry or don’t fit in with their lifestyle.” But as the desirability of a technology increases, she said, so too does its effectiveness along with the willingness to use it.

ExxonMobil’s Darwin corroborated Wyatt’s point. “The 2010 study talked about making sure that women were part of the creation of a technology’s design” for that reason. This, she said, is what led to the “Women | Tools | Technology Challenge.” “We had 268 entries from 67 countries, and they were just incredibly impactful like Solar Sister and other programs…so what we did was invest in a few that were sustainable. And the ones that we’ve promoted are going to reach 13,500 people directly in the next two years and 475,000 people indirectly in the next two years. It’s a big plan.”

Darwin mentioned other innovations that are a part of ExxonMobil’s agenda. “For us, energy is such an important aspect of economic prosperity. The women just need access, she said, but what they do have is the abundant African sun. “In addition to the wonderful Solar Sister program, there’s P.A.L.M.S. and the women in Ghana who are tying solar power to agriculture. While they’re planting disease-resistant crops so they don’t need as much pesticide,” she explains, “drip irrigation using solar pumps allows them to have year-round crops.” So as women are working more efficiently through solar energy, she says, plots of land for farming are now up to 30 times the size of what they used to be.

But for Eva Walusimbi and Uganda, the impact the solar lanterns are having was clear. “It’s changing women’s lives,” she says of the light Solar Sister provides. “For a long time African woman in Uganda have been behind the curtain… If you’re poor, people think even your brain is poor so that you can’t contribute anything,” she says. “But, every day, women are contributing by selling these lights.” With women and girls generally needing to work all day long, and no time remaining to do much else, the lanterns are providing the light to study after chores, she said. And women are working more efficiently and can now be more productive.

So as ExxonMobil and its partners move ahead with forward-thinking initiatives for women, they are helping to bring about something that the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to in an earlier panel discussion as essential to developing countries. “When women are empowered, societies are more stable.”

To bring the discussion back home, it’s the stuff that more than one million Times Square revelers who cram once a year into a few square city blocks of midtown Manhattan could get excited about any day on the calendar.