Sub-Saharan Africa is changing rapidly. New infrastructure, economic development and urbanisation are transforming society. Poverty is declining and the middle class is growing.
Yet two-thirds of the population - more than 600 million people - still lack access to electricity, and more than 700 million cook with traditional biomass: wood, charcoal, dung and agricultural residues.
With population growth, the number of traditional biomass users is expected to rise to 880 million by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
How is this possible? To some extent, it reflects a broader struggle to meet Africa's energy needs. As of 2013, the total power capacity installed in Africa was 147 GW - about the same as in Belgium, or what China installs every year or two, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
But governments have also prioritised energy for mining, industry and other large-scale investments. Thus, even with massive electrification efforts under way, the AfDB still expects half the population of sub-Saharan Africa to lack electricity in 2030. And although many countries have promoted clean cookstoves and off-grid household energy solutions, the scale of these efforts is much more modest.
It is time to recognize that modernizing household energy is central to Africa's development - and that means bringing women to the table.
Women and girls collect most of the firewood, spending an average of 2.1 hours per day on the task. They also do most of the cooking - a task that consumes about 1.6 hours per day, according to World Bank estimates. This is time that could be spent on education and income-earning activities, costing sub-Saharan African economies as much as US$29.6 billion per year, the World Bank estimates. Combined with health, environmental and other economic impacts, the cost is close to US$60 billion.
Electricity access can be thus be transformative for women. A study in South Africa, for example, found that rural electrification led to a 9 percentage-point increase in female employment. Another analysis, covering multiple countries, found the larger the share of the population that has access to electricity, the higher the level of gender equality, even in very poor countries.
The reality, of course, is that electricity will not reach all households in the immediate future - not to mention, power is so unreliable in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and so expensive, that a large share of urban households cook with charcoal, just a step above firewood (our recent study of Migori County, Kenya, found 84% of urban households cooked with charcoal).
Still, there is huge scope for improving the quality of energy sources and services available to African households, here and now. In several countries, improved biomass cookstoves are already widely available, for example, and new, higher-tech options and clean fuels are coming on the market. There are also off-grid lighting and small-scale power supply options.
Women are not only the end-users of these technologies - they are also key players in the success of any enterprise that develops and markets them. Women are best positioned to tell designers what they want and need, so the resulting products are desirable to consumers, and seen as worth the cost. Women's groups, which are already active in communities across sub-Saharan Africa, can lead educational efforts and microfinance schemes.
Women can also become household energy entrepreneurs themselves, producing or selling improved stoves, marketing solar lights, and/or providing after-sales services for these products. Close to their customers, women entrepreneurs have the potential to lower customer acquisition and servicing costs and drive these new decentralized solutions.
Women-led renewable energy businesses have a strong track record in accelerating off-grid energy access.
For example, Solar Sister, which combines clean energy technology with a deliberately women-centred direct sales network to deliver improved lighting and cooking options to women in rural Africa, has grown from two to 1,250 entrepreneurs in five years. The company has so far created employment opportunities for 2,000 women across Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria, and has delivered clean, energy efficient products that benefit 300,000 people in the region.
Another notable success story is that of the Energising Development (EnDev) Kenya programme, run by GIZ. Women make, install and market the stoves. As of June 2015, more than 1.45 million stoves had been installed in different parts of Kenya, serving over 7 million people.
As part of its broader women's empowerment programme, UN Women has designed WomenPower, an integrated cloud-based platform that links women entrepreneurs with information, debt and equity finance, quality-assured goods and service suppliers, customers, leads, and markets. The platform will address the data gap by collecting first-of-its-kind gender-disaggregated data on energy access and entrepreneurship.
Women make enormous contributions to the economies of sub-Saharan Africa: in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, and through unpaid care work at home. Recognizing women's central role in transforming energy systems will bring huge economic and social benefits, directly contributing to gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth.
The timing is auspicious. Many clean household energy businesses are already operating in sub-Saharan Africa, and their numbers are growing as entrepreneurs recognize a significant economic opportunity.
The current global focus on enhancing access to modern energy services across Africa presents a unique opportunity for re-evaluating how energy access programmes are designed and delivered and placing women as energy users and providers at the centre of all future efforts.
Fiona Lambe is a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Marion Davis is a senior communications officer at the SEI.