Women at the Forefront; Scaling up Solar in Rural Africa

I recently travelled to Zanzibar, Tanzania to meet up with a group of women, known locally as the Solar Mamas, who have been installing solar panels throughout their rural, coastal community. The purpose of my trip was gain a better understanding of the gender dynamics of energy and to see how access to solar electricity is impacting women and girls in rural East Africa.

The island of Zanzibar, located off the coast of Tanzania, is almost completely off the grid. Less than 4 percent of the island’s population has access to electricity and even those with access, don’t have enough. Life in rural Zanzibar, as in much of rural Africa, is a race against the clock—daily chores and activity must be completed before the sun goes down. After sunset, it’s totally dark and evening work and studies are impossible. This is particularly impactful to young girls and women who spend daylight hours fulfilling domestic responsibilities. Without access to light after dark, there is no time for girls to keep up with school work or for women to partake in income generating activity.

Tanzania has a Human Development Index score of 0.52, which puts it in the bottom half of African countries, in terms of development. Less than 6 percent of girls go on to receive secondary education. This statistic is likely the result of several factors—access to electricity being one of them. Having a heavier domestic workload than their male counterparts, girls have a harder time keeping up with school work and with less than 4 percent of the rural population having access to electricity, finding time after dark is nearly impossible.

The majority of households in Zanzibar light their homes using kerosene lamps, which are barely brighter than a candle. When burning, these lamps emit a thick, noxious smoke, which is dangerous to inhale. Kerosene is also very expensive—most households site kerosene as their largest monthly expense, above education, health and food. Although much of Zanzibar remains off the grid, mini and off-grid solar options are penetrating these remote areas. Stand-alone solar panels are uniquely poised to transform life in rural Africa for two reasons. The first reason being the ample supply of solar and the second being that it doesn’t require massive investments in transmission infrastructure.

The solar energy industry is growing rapidly in Tanzania and it’s making sure to include women at the ground level. Pictured below is a young girl from Kinyasini, a village located in Northern Zanzibar. She is reading under the glow of a battery run LED light, charged by a solar panel, installed on the roof of her family’s home. The solar technician who installed this panel is a local Kinyasini woman, named Mama Fatma.

Mama Fatma was trained to be a solar technician in Rajasthan, India, at Barefoot College (BFC), along with twelve other women from her village, who are known locally as the Solar Mamas. BFC recruits illiterate women from around the developing world to receive training in solar installation. Their objective is to make rural life, in developing parts of the world, more sustainable through the employment of renewable energy. BFC finds that women make particularly effective allies in this effort given their connectedness and unique role within the community. Women in the developing world will spend, on average, 80 cents for every dollar earned on her household—most commonly on education. Men, by comparison, spend about 40 cents on their household. Also, given their deep community ties, women are less transient. When a man receives training of this kind, he is more likely to move to a city where he can leverage it into a higher paying job. Women are much more likely to return to their village. Training women to be solar technicians ensures that the benefits of solar energy will go directly to her community and thus provide the best return on investment. Furthermore, women's participation and leadership in the expansion of solar energy is to the great benefit of the project, as women have a tremendous amount of valuable insight and talent to contribute.  

After six months of training, the thirteen women from Kinyasini returned to their village, where they began installing solar panels throughout their community. To date, the Solar Mamas have installed panels on over 800 homes on Zanzibar. BFC receives funding from organizations, including Sun Edison and the Sierra Club, which pays for the actual solar hardware as well as expenses associated with the training workshop. The households enrolled in the program pay a monthly fee—half of which goes directly to the woman who installed the solar panel and the other half gets reinvested into the community.

The Kinyasini Solar Committee—comprised of the thirteen Solar Mamas, the village leader, the regional program manager and two additional elected representatives—decide where to invest the revenue and how to best manage the growth of the project. In addition to having the most to gain from access to energy, women and girls make up the majority of people living without energy. According to the World Bank, women and girls make up 70 percent of those living in energy poverty. The systematic inclusion of women in the management and design of solar energy programs, via platforms such as the Solar Committee, ensures that the specific needs of women are reached and therefor that the benefits of energy are optimized.

The Kinyasini Solar Committee voted to use the revenue to make improvements to the local primary school. Other examples of investment possibilities that address gender inequality include obstetrician clinics, health education programs, improved bathroom privacy in schools and solar powered night schools.

The Solar Committee is also responsible for setting the monthly cost of solar to be paid by each home. To do this, they find out the average amount households were paying per month for kerosene. In Kinyasini, that amount was $6 USD. They then set the monthly cost for solar at $5 USD. Now, not only is solar cheaper than kerosene, but it comes with two LED lights, the ability to charge a cell phone (a service they previously would walk to town and pay for) and it’s much safer.

Part of BFC’s success in reaching remote places is due to their innovative method for teaching. When Mama Fatma arrived in India for training, she arrived with 30 other women—hailing from several countries around the world. In addition to being illiterate, none of the women spoke a common language. In order to effectively train groups in solar installation, BFC uses a very simple and highly effective color coded method. Over 1,500 women have successfully completed the training and an astoundingly low number of women have dropped out of the program early.

BFC began their solar initiative in 2008 and started with programming in two countries. They now have programming in over 50 countries with multiple chapters per country. The decentralized management model assures the projects grow to fit the particular contours of each community. Traditional knowledge and skills are valued and village led initiatives are employed to reach impactful solutions to place-based issues. Simultaneously, it challenges long held systems of oppression and inequity—all via the expansion of renewable energy.

In addition to making up the majority of people living without access to energy, women and girls also comprise the majority of people living in poverty—making them disproportionately vulnerable to the economic, health and social burdens of resource scarcity and climate change. At the same time, environmental sustainability and conservation efforts rely on the participation of women—who are most often on the front lines of natural resource management. Scaling up renewable energy is massively important in its own right—but perhaps most importantly, it’s essential in the fight for poverty eradication and gender equality.

Thanks to the Solar Mamas I was able to witness first-hand the success of BFC’s approach in addressing both gender and energy issues and I saw the challenges and victories that were playing out on the island of Zanzibar. I would like to thank my hosts, Pendo Daudi and Lucie Mauron as well as the village members of Kinyasini—all of whom very kindly and graciously welcomed me into their community. I was honored to spend the week with such a profoundly powerful group of women.

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