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The Sun Sisterhood

A female entrepreneurship project created to guarantee access to clean energy in some areas of Africa where electricity is still generated by old systems that use polluting sources.

by Davide Perillo
16 September 2020
11 min read
byDavide Perillo
16 September 2020
11 min read

It all started with a debate between husband and wife in a remote village in southern Uganda. It was a simple house: a bedroom, a dining room with a small kitchen in the corner, and another small room that he uses as a store for his work as a shepherd. And a little place outside, halfway between the house and the barn, where she keeps the chickens.

More light more eggs

So four rooms in all. But the solar panel system they were about to install wouldn't run more than three lamps. So that’s where the squabbling started: they agreed on the bedroom and living room, but what about the third light? He wanted it "in the office", she wanted it in the henhouse. But not just so her animals would be more comfortable! "Chickens don't eat in the dark. if they have the lights on they produce more," she argued. In the end, the wife won out and the lamp went to the chickens. The chickens really started laying more eggs, which could then be sold. Within a few months, that micro-income was enough to buy a cow, a goat and a few bags of feed. A virtuous circle was born. Sure it was small, but it was enough to give a boost to the family and to the budding business of Rebecca, the shepherd’s wife. Without ever intending to, she started a project that is now changing part of Africa.

Energy from Atlanta

It's called Solar Sister, a consortium created to make solar energy more widespread in a place where at least 600 million people have a mobile phone, but do not have access to the power grid; where to turn on stoves or charge generators they use outdated systems harmful to the environment and themselves: kerosene, above all, and coal. And all of the associated costs can absorb 10 to 30% of household incomes. Not to mention time, effort and hours of work.

This is what inspired the idea of Katherine Lucey, an American from Atlanta, Georgia, who moved to sub-Saharan Africa to follow her passion. A former investment banker and self-made career woman, Lucey started out as a secretary and ended up managing hedge funds, trading and assessing risk in the energy sector. After 20 years, she gave up finance to work in the social sphere. She became the executive director of a small NGO, Solar Light for Africa, which installs solar panels in schools and hospitals in isolated areas of Uganda. These are simple projects, but they have a big impact on people's lives. She saw that for herself when she managed the installation of a well pump at a clinic that is the only healthcare facility in an area inhabited by three million people. All it took was panels, cables and a few days' work, and from then on the nurses no longer had to spend two hours a day –each!– pulling up the water their patients needed.

Women entrepreneurship

But the turning point came when she met Rebecca. Katherine was in charge of installing those three lamps – and she saw what happened as a result. She had a new idea, combining the spread of solar energy with female entrepreneurship, which rests on two pillars. First, there was the importance of reaching the numerous villages on the last mile, too far away to connect to the power grid, assuming there was one. Or, if they could get on the grid, they suffered from common problems around those parts, including outages, power cuts and breakdowns. As Lucey explained in an interview with Yale Envinronment: “you really can’t rise up above subsistence living and achieve prosperity if you don’t have access to energy." The second pillar is that real change comes from women. They're the ones who manage the house, look after the kids, do the cooking. They're the ones who know what it's like to inhale coal smoke, or go out at night looking for wood to make dinner. If you want to break the bond between poverty and pollution, you have to get to them. “Our program reaches out to women right where they are at their household with energy access through this network of women entrepreneurs,” says Lucey.

The consortium grows

That's how Solar Sister came into existence. The money to get going came in quickly, thanks to Lucey's experience. Neha Misra, a one-of-a-kind Indian economist –since she writes poetry and cultivates popular art– came on board, too. Gradually, a growing network was formed involving NGOs and companies in the sector in various countries. 

It’s a simple setup. “We describe ourselves sometimes as the Avon model, using women directly selling to their communities. We recruit, train, and support women and provide them with access to products. We provide them access to the working capital financing that they need.” After 10-12 months of training, where they learn how solar panels and batteries work –and what it takes to set up a small business– the Sisters are given two things: an orange t-shirt, with the logo prominently displayed, and a bag of capital goods. Lights and lamps, first and foremost, of every size, mobile phone chargers and solar batteries. But also radios, headlamps and water purifiers. Whatever they sell, a share of the profits goes straight to them and this margin can be used as a little capital to reinvest. That’s how the virtuous circle starts. It usually doesn't take them long to figure out what products work in their community.

Prices range from ten dollars to a few hundred, with the average purchase at about fifty dollars. “Fifty dollars might sound like a lot in the communities that we’re working in where people are making two dollars a day,” observes Lucey. “But when you consider that they’re paying two to four dollars per week on kerosene plus another two to three dollars a week to charge their cell phone, that fifty dollar investment pays back pretty quickly.” From there on it's all savings. And walls that no longer turn black from the same thick smoke that also ends up in their lungs.

A new lifestyle

In short, it works. That’s easy to see from the map of the Sisters, who have expanded from Uganda to Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Nigeria... and the numbers set out in Turning on the Lights, the group's annual report. After six years, the initiative had created 4,565 new entrepreneurs (86% women), with 347,000 products sold, reaching 1.7 million people with those small but genuinely life-changing objects.

Take Hilaria Pascal, one of the first Sisters. She lives in a village near Tarangire, Tanzania, weaving baskets and small handmade objects, using colour as only people from those parts can. She joined the Sisters seven years ago, with the help of her husband "helped me start with some capital". She got started by buying a dozen lamps and some phone chargers. She sold them all and never looked back. Today she has two thousand customers and has set up a group called Mshikamano (meaning “solidarity” in Swahili), to pass on knowledge and skills. “The community prays for us because we have brought a different lifestyle to their homes," says Basilia, one of them.

You really can’t rise up above subsistence living and achieve prosperity if you don’t have access to energy

by Katherine Lucey

An example of empowerment

It’s a similar story with Patricia Shayo, a farmer and mother of four hungry children (including twins), who has a penchant for business that is made sharper by necessity. She use to sell sorghum flour door-to-door and had rented a small vegetable garden. “Whenever I see opportunities, I go for them, I do not let them pass!” she says. When she heard about Solar Sister and realised that in Michungwani, her village a hundred kilometres from the coast of Tanzania, everyone was still using wood and kerosene to light lights and stoves, she jumped. After few months of training, the help from her husband –himself an employee at an energy company, a small advantage!– she, too, was in business. She’s happy with the profit, but above all because “it has made me a strong and courageous mother and I see opportunities that I did not see before.”

Indeed, emancipation is one of the side effects of the project. “Solar Sister makes us know that woman can take care of their family without depending on others,” says Patricia. But the other, equally important aspect, is education. “Everything about Solar Sister is educative,” says Onyinye Ndimele, another Sister, who lives in Awka, Nigeria. “I enjoy the trainings a lot, they help me not only in my solar business but in other businesses and aspects of life. I’ve learned a lot about being confident in myself and being persistent. I believe I can do anything I set my mind to do.” It’s a confidence that comes to her from another success story, in its own small way. A teacher with two little children, Onyinye was also selling cosmetics on the side. She started with an investment of 40 thousand naira, less than 100 euros, despite scepticism from her friends and partner. Now she has enough money to imagine a different life. "In the future I want to buy land and build my own house," she says. And she has been on a plane for the first time, having been invited to Abuja for a meeting of small business owners.

Light protects

On top of all this, there is the fact that light also brings security –here more than anywhere else. So the level of transformation that Solar Sister can offer becomes even clearer. Eucharia, a farmer with seven children and a husband who works as a motorbike taxi driver, lives in a village in the state of Eunugu, Nigeria. She started riding around the area three years ago, wearing an orange Sisters t-shirt and a bag full of lamps and batteries. The Oji power plant stopped working properly 16 years ago, causing blackouts during the day and darkness at night since then. That’s not exactly ideal in an area where many gangs of criminals use an old way of getting money: kidnappings. They come, force their way into the house, take a woman or child away and demand a ransom. And the victim doesn't always come back. One night, when she was alone in the house with a granddaughter, Eucharia heard yelling and banging on the door. But she had lamps around the walls, two on each side. She turned them on, sounded the alarm and the kidnappers ran off. Now Eucharia never turns them off when it gets dark and she tells customers how clean energy saved her life.

From eggs to school

And what about Rebecca, the first Solar Sister? With the chickens, she earned enough to make her dreams come true and opened a small school, teaching children to read and write. And she explains to the older ones how she set up her own micro-enterprise. Lucey recounts what happened when she went back to see Rebecca. “When we were there, the first woman graduated from her literacy programme. It was just, like, ‘Wow, this is how you light up the world!’ And that’s what I see the power of energy as being.”