Women | Tools | Technology: Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves

In the one year since it was identified as an early-entry winner of the ExxonMobil-supported Women | Tools | Technology Challenge, Solar Sister has really taken off, says Katherine Lucey, founder and president of the network basing its technology distribution efforts in Africa. Lucey spoke to The Daily Beast about the momentum the program has had over the short span of time as well as the second “Women in the World” summit happening in New York this week.

By selling solar lamps, African women are earning income, while also addressing lighting needs in schools and clinics. (Photo Credit: Solar Sister)

An innovative social enterprise, Solar Sister is aiming to eliminate energy poverty in rural communities throughout Africa by empowering women there. With an Avon-style distribution program providing affordable solar technologies, Solar Sister’s band of women entrepreneurs is replacing kerosene lanterns with solar lights that are safer and healthier to use and encourage education and foster economic and environmental benefits. Simple, basic improvements with far-reaching benefits.

A Bright Idea.

The notion for Solar Sister first took root with Katherine Lucey, who had worked as an investment banker financing power projects for developing countries. Knowing firsthand that access to electricity is fundamental to development, she also recognized that large-scale power projects didn’t invest in infrastructure that brings electricity to the rural poor. So there needed to be a way to distribute affordable energy to places like sub-Saharan Africa, where a mere 5 percent of the rural population has access to the grid.

She decided that solar was the perfect energy source as it could “take advantage of the most abundant resource, the hot African sun. Advances in technology also made it available and affordable.” And, she thought, once you have the equipment, it is essentially “free” energy. “It just became a matter of how to provide access to the solar technology in a way that made it scalable and sustainable,” she says. That is what lead to the development of the Solar Sister network.

“Last year, we began with 10 women in our pilot project in eastern Uganda. Their success was profiled in the Women | Tools | Technology Challenge and highlighted in last year’s “Women in the World” summit. This year, with support from ExxonMobil, we now have 89 Solar Sister entrepreneurs selling solar lights in 10 communities in Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan.” And they’re adding more every day, says Katherine Lucey. Even in some of the most difficult circumstances, they have been successful in establishing their businesses, she says, bringing their ingenuity “to meet the challenge of selling a new technology to customers who earn less than $2 a day.”

But there were other challenges, too. One of the biggest they faced was convincing people that women could be active participants in technology-based solutions. “When you bring a new technology to a village, all of the men gather around, and the women are left outside the circle,” she says. “But as it’s the women who gather the wood, buy the kerosene, and light the lamps, they have to be part of the solution.”

Seeing the Light.

When you ask a woman what she would do with the solar light if she had it, she apparently gives a very different answer than a man does, according to Lucey. For example, she explains, “women look at the solar and see ‘light,’ but men look at solar and see ‘technology.’ The women we talk to have very practical applications of what the solar light can do for them.”

She makes her point. “One woman, Rebecca, saw the light as a way to improve her poultry farm. She installed it in the hen house so that the chickens would eat more, be healthy, lay more eggs, and be more profitable. Another woman, Janet, uses her light, which has a built-in cell phone charger, to run a micro-business that charges her neighbors' cell phones, earning $1 a day to supplement her family’s farm income. Nancy, who values the security of the lights, puts one outside her family’s front door so that when she comes home in the evening, she can safely reach her house,” she says. Yet another she mentioned gives the light to her children to carry to school in the morning. It illuminates the long walk in the dark along a busy road that they have to take to get to class on time.

When asked about the ExxonMobil partnership and its value to Solar Sister, Lucey didn’t mince words. “Without their support, we would not be where we are today. They helped us transition from a bright idea to a sustainable solar enterprise.” From the start, it was the first time she said she was able “to talk about the importance of closing the technology gender gap with people who were already making important commitments to enabling women with technology.” And perhaps more importantly, she says, ExxonMobil had connected Solar Sister with other philanthropists and social entrepreneurs at the 2010 Women in the World summit, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others.

On the ground, ExxonMobil’s two-year funding translates into Solar Sister being able to scale up their program in Uganda this year with as many as a hundred entrepreneurs, and then to replicate the program in another West African country next year. “Our goal is to expand across sub-Saharan Africa, where up to 750 million people live without access to electricity, 70 percent of whom are women and girls,” says Lucey. “As the entrepreneurs sell their lamps, they earn a commission and reinvest the rest of the proceeds back into new inventory, creating a sustainable income stream for years to come. So the investment has a tremendous leveraging of social impact.”

Door to Door to Door.

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The Avon-style distribution program that the organization has adopted combines micro-solar lighting with a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network. Women are their own bosses and earn independent income while giving access to needed technologies. “We decided,” says Lucey, “that an Avon woman-to-woman model would be both empowering and practical for seamlessly incorporating this technology into homes. Solar Sister solves the problem of the ‘last mile’ distribution and brings the lamps right to the doorstep of the customers.”

It was also clear that as women bring new technology to rural households, says Lucey, they sell through their trusted networks of family, friends, and neighbors. “They use the lamps themselves, and then talk passionately about the benefits—the better light, the money they save by not having to buy kerosene, the amount of time their children are able to study, the cleaner air and safer environment for their kids.”

She says it’s inspiring to see the women blossom into savvy businesswomen. “They bring their own ingenuity to the business. One entrepreneur, Viola, discovered that she could sell the solar lamps to the shopkeepers that operate the roadside stands if she visited them at night and showed them how much brighter the Solar Sister lamp was than their kerosene lamp. She sold out her inventory in a single night, earning enough to pay for her child’s school fees as well as restock her inventory.” Another Solar Sister “Grace has doubled her family’s income, providing money that can be spent on school fees for the ten children they care for, four of her own and six nieces and nephews who have been left in her care because her husband’s sister died of AIDS. Our experience matches the reported data that shows that when women earn income, they invest 90 percent into their families.”

But with access to technology, the customer benefit is life-changing. “A woman who lives in a small village home on the steep slope of Mt. Elgon in eastern Uganda, bought a solar lamp to replace the kerosene lamp that she used at home.” Says Lucey, “Now she no longer has to spend $2 a week, which is about 30 percent of her income, to buy kerosene. With the savings, she bought eating utensils for her family of six. The first they have ever had.”

At the Summit.

Katherine Lucey talked about last year’s “Women in the World” summit and the highly anticipated second installment of the annual event that’s kicking off this week in New York. “It was an incredible opportunity to highlight the Solar Sister program in front of the most amazing women in the world. Calling it “a three-day immersion program in inspiration,” she enthuses that “to have the opportunity to meet women who have literally changed history and absorb some of their energy and commitment is indescribably motivating.

“This year, it is so exciting that one of our very first Solar Sister entrepreneurs, Eva Walusimbi, will be on the “Women, Tools, Technology: a Global Leapfrog” [Friday afternoon] panel with Pam Darwin of ExxonMobil and Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO, moderated by Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green.” Eva, a now successful Solar Sister entrepreneur, says Lucey, will talk about its progress so far. “Eva’s story,” says the Solar Sister founder, “is incredibly inspiring and will put a human face on an important global issue.”

Click on the homepage “Women in the World” link for the three-day event’s agenda.