8 March 2018

Ethiopia: A 'Morning Light' Dawns for Ethiopian Women With Access to Solar Energy and Loans

In a drought-prone village of southern Ethiopia stands a small solar-energy-powered shop, fondly named by women as 'Shaka', which means the 'morning light'.

It's the hub of a sustainable energy and economic enterprise women describe as "the shining light in our lives". Here, women collectively use solar energy to benefit themselves, the community and their environment.

Consecutive droughts and increasingly unpredictable seasons have resulted in hunger, the death of livestock and diminishing incomes.

As pastoralists, their livelihoods depend on the environment, and women in particular rely on energy: They use firewood to light their homes and cook food for their families, walking miles for wood in increasingly deforested areas. For this poor community, there have been few alternatives up until now.

When a local organisation, "The Women's Support Association", introduced solar energy projects, women were empowered to setup and diversify their income in this tough environment.

They now gather at Shaka to run savings and loans schemes, using solar energy to sell cold drinks or offer mobile phone charging services at a small fee, to a community with no access to conventional grid power. They stand together to work through problems, providing loans to set up individual businesses or to support medical emergencies.

One woman described it as "gaining a family, with 17 sisters".

Ari Fereda is one of many women with a clear memory of living in a different environment, one full of trees, animals and wild fruit, where she could shelter or find pasture for her livestock. Climate change has forced her to reflect and adapt. Deforestation now means walking for hours to find firewood, risking sexual violence and precious time away from home.

Ari now relies far less on firewood as a key source of energy. She collects a minimal amount for cooking but uses a solar lamp for all lighting needs in the household. Her children can study in the evenings rather than risking their education and health by the smoke of the fire.

She says "without trees, human beings can't live on earth. Everything comes from the rain. But now wood consumption has reduced. Most people here now use solar lamps so hopefully deforestation will decrease and it will help with climate change".

Ari presented the women's group at Shaka with a proposal to set up her own business. With the money she bought goats and adapted her existing livestock rearing techniques, learning to fatten and sell goats effectively around times of drought.

She collectively sells coffee husk with the other women to contribute to their savings group. Emergency loans have helped her family through tough times and her business enables her to pay them back with ease.

"As women, we were not recognised, we were not free. So much work is the woman's: preparing farmland, fetching water, collecting firewood, cooking. But the major problem was accessing money," she said.

But now Ari's husband is heartfelt when he speaks about his wife, explaining how she taught him "everything he now knows about saving and business".

The introduction of sustainable, green energy alternatives has helped women achieve social and economic freedom and benefitted whole communities. As impressively, firewood use has reduced by more than half in these communities, protecting the environment for future generations.

Amy Sheppey is a media and communications advisor for Christian Aid. She visited Ethiopia in late February. Christian Aid supported the Women's Support Association (WSA), a partner organisation in Ethiopia.

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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