14 March 2012
Rafea, a wife and mother of four, lives in a poor Bedouin village in Jordan. A trip to India to learn how to install solar panels brings new economic opportunity to Rafea, and the promise of raising the standard of living in villages all over Jordan.
More than 1 billion people in the world today live in poverty, according to the United Nations. The vast majority are women, most of whom live in developing countries. A critical factor in eradicating world poverty, says the UN, is empowering women.
Teaching women to harness the sun’s power to produce energy presents a unique solution to help achieve both of these goals.
Solar Sister’s reach extends to three countries, benefiting 143 entrepreneurs and bringing solar light to 17,605 people.
Rafea’s story is the subject of “Solar Mamas,” a documentary film that follows three women who leave their respective remote villages in Africa and the Middle East to attend India’s Barefoot College to learn more about solar engineering and help their communities combat the energy crisis.
It’s also a story that’s becoming more common as the connections between empowering women, creating sustainable communities and promoting economic growth become more apparent.
“The way to go about this is not a centralized grid system, which brings in power from hundreds of miles away. It is to bring in basic light right down to the level of basic household wherein they take ownership and control over that technology,” Barefoot College founder Sanjit “Bunker” Roy told CNN. Roy started the college in 1972, and it has since trained hundreds of women as solar engineers. “So why not invest in women, older women, mature women, gutsy women who have roots in the village and train them.”
Also, in remote, rural areas with limited infrastructure and year-round sun, solar-powered energy makes more sense than using traditional fossil fuels.
The Sunderbans, covering parts of India and Bangladesh, is another such area, cut off from the rest of world, which suffers from chronic energy shortage and low socio-economic development because of its remote and difficult landscape.
Situated in the southern region of Gangetic West Bengal, the Sunderbans is a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. The 19-block area is separated from the mainland, and from other blocks, by wide rivers and creeks. Roads and railways are scarce—there are only 42km of rail and 280km of metalled road in the entire inhabited area, about 4444.33 sq km—and the rough terrain makes it difficult to install high-tension transmission line.
About 20% of the area’s population, approximately 216,000 people, use solar PV electricity.
TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute, North America) has been working with women in this region for almost a decade, partnering with the state government and NGOs, to promote solar PV. To date, six women have become solar entrepreneurs, renting solar lanterns, designing electronic items and repairing solar home systems, among other businesses. Not only do these new business ventures provide energy for the community and financial independence for the women, it also gives the women a newfound pride derived from their newly developed solar skills.
The UN estimates that around 1.5 billion people worldwide live without electricity, 70% of whom are women and girls in developing nations. They spend hours collecting wood for cooking and heating, and rely on kerosene lanterns or candles for light. Because the women’s domain is the home—they care for and educate children, cook and manage the household—women and girls consistently breathe toxic fumes from kerosene. UC Berkeley researchers found the odds of having tuberculosis were more than nine times greater for women using kerosene lamps for indoor lighting, rather than electricity, and 3.5 times greater for women using biomass fuel for household heating, compared to those using cleaning-burning fuel stoves, according to a 2010 study published in "Environmental Health Perspectives." In addition, they have a greater likelihood of inhaling smoke or suffering injury or death from a lamp fire.
In addition to being dangerous, kerosene is expensive. Solar Sister says the rural poor can spend up to 30% of their family income on kerosene.
This is where organizations like Solar Sister and FlexiWay Solar Solutions come in. “Women need the light the most,” says FlexiWay Solar Solutions, which works with local groups, NGOs and charities to distribute its solar-powered LED lights and replace kerosene lamps in Tanzania.
Business in a bag
Solar Sister takes it a step further, providing rural women with a “business in a bag,” inventory, training and marketing support to start solar micro-enterprise businesses. Solar lamps replace the kerosene lanterns and solar cell phone chargers provide connectivity in even the most energy poor communities. It uses a business model similar to Avon or Mary Kay in the US, but with clean energy technology instead of makeup, providing income for women and light for their communities. To date, Solar Sister’s reach extends to three countries, benefiting 143 entrepreneurs and bringing solar light to 17,605 people.
The World Bank’s “World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development” report argues that closing the gender gap matters because gender equality is a core development objective in its own right. “But it is also smart economics,” it says. “Greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions more representative.” As more communities and organizations turn to solar to empower women and shed light on economic and community development, the sky’s—or the sun’s—the limit.
Written by Jessica Lyons Hardcastle, News Editor, Solar Novus Today