12 March 2016

Africa: Women Can Power Alternative Energy Solutions for Africa

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, according to the International Energy Agency.

Around 65 per cent of primary schools and over 30 per cent of health facilities also lack electricity. In Kenya, for example, 76 per cent of the population rely on traditional biomass for cooking, and only 23 per cent have electricity, World Bank data shows.

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.

But since governments have also prioritised energy for mining, industry and other large-scale investments, 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 cook stoves and off-grid household energy solutions, the scale of these efforts is much more modest.

It is time to recognise that modernising 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 $29.6 billion per year, the World Bank estimates. Combined with health, environmental and other economic impacts, the cost is close to $60 billion.

Electricity access can thus be transformative for women but the links between energy access and gender equality and the role that women can play as agents of change in the transition to sustainable energy are sometimes overlooked. A study in South Africa, for example, found that rural electrification led to a 9 percentage-point increase in female employment.

The reality is that electricity will not reach all households in the immediate future. 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 cook stoves 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.

In Migori County, we found women's groups were eager to educate community members about energy issues, raise awareness, and mobilise resources to promote energy technologies.

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; they can also operate distribution networks and microfinance schemes.

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 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.

UN Women is working actively to promote women's access to technologies through programmatic interventions and policy dialogue in many countries in the region.

This past Tuesday was International Women's Day, a strong reminder of the urgent need for actions to empower women, achieve equal rights, reduce poverty, and improve women's health and education.

Women's contributions are vital to African economies - in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, and through unpaid care work at home.

Recognising 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.

Fiona Lambe is a research fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute's Stockholm Centre. Hannah Wanjiru is a research associate at the Institute's Africa Centre in Nairobi. Asa Torkelsson is advisor for economic empowerment in the Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office of UN Women in Nairobi.

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