Local women are shining a light on green business

Women are the heroes of the transition – A series of four portraits

This article was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne
“I am grateful that God created me a woman, it means I have lots of opportunities. I am a wife, mother, teacher, farmer, entrepreneur and leader in my community.”

Comfort Ubong Akpannah – Teacher, 54, Nigeria

Comfort Ubong Akpannah was the first woman entrepreneur to train with Solar Sister Nigeria and launch a clean energy business in 2014. Since then she’s grown a successful business benefitting her family and the wider community. Importantly, she has also been a vocal and consistent local advocate of switching to clean energy. 

 

In a country where 80 million people don’t have access to grid power supplies, most people are used to relying on costly, unhealthy and unreliable fuel solutions to light and power their homes. Making the switch to clean energy is not always as easy as it might sound. It takes local leadership and an insider’s knowledge of markets and customer motivations and life experiences. 

Comfort, 54, is a teacher by profession, a farmer by nature and a clean energy entrepreneur by passion. She was born, grew up and studied to university level in Akwa Ibom State in southeastern Nigeria. She is already a leader in her community and uses her power and her various platforms to spread the word about solar energy and clean cookstoves. 

I am grateful that God created me a woman, it means I have lots of opportunities. I am a wife, mother, teacher, farmer, entrepreneur and leader in my community. And these various capacities have found me looking out for the good of all. Being a leader in my church, school and community has given me the platform to talk to many, especially women like me, about clean energy.”  

Comfort, who raises four children with her husband, Ubong Akpannah, says her family sees the benefits of renewable power in so many ways. And this is the kind of highly visible positive example needed to spur others to make the switch. 

“My family has been the greatest beneficiary of all I have gained from clean energy. My children are doing well in school as they can read with bright light and they do their house chores with ease. My home is constantly lit with solar lamps, keeping it clean and smoke-free.” 

Comfort brings a variety of quality, durable and affordable solar products to her community and beyond. Many customers are fond of the phone charging solar lights, but they baulk at the price. Why not just go to the market and buy one that’s a quarter of the price? Why not just stick to kerosene? 

This is where local persuasion power and where local heroes like Comfort come in. 

“When I have difficulties convincing people to switch from their old ways, it’s often because people are afraid of the cost and afraid of something new. So I help them to calculate the money they spend on kerosene, on batteries. I spend time with them explaining the qualities of the light: how long they last, how bright they are.” 

Comfort says she convinces her customers to invest in switching to clean energy because she knows what their concerns are. She understands that her customers are taking a risk switching to a new, unknown and seemingly more expensive, energy source. 

“The products are long-lasting and long-serving. My customers realise they are spending more on these other energies, and then they decide to go for solar.” 

As Comfort grows her business, she sees the impact of solar lights and chargers on other families. And she gets more and more people in rural Akwa Ibom interested in solar power. Her husband, who was supportive from the start, is now her biggest fan as he sees the very tangible benefits of clean energy: more savings and extra income for the family. 

“My husband gives me all the support in my business, and more so as he has seen the benefits.” 

Comfort is one of over 1,300 local heroes working across the country to get fellow Nigerians to make the switch to renewable energy. They have reached 300,000 people since 2014 with clean energy lighting and cooking products. This is a grassroots effort, meaning it is locally led, it is widespread and it is reaching places that aren’t reached by purely profit-driven models. 

Until everyone else catches up, it’s up to local heroes like Comfort to light the way in their communities and beyond.

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Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne
“The communities can relate to me, to my experience. I can explain how my life was when I was younger, and how it is now, so they are encouraged to change their way of living.”

Ivy Nkhambule – Marketing Manager, 32, Malawi

Ivy Nkhambule grew up in the north of Malawi. As a little girl, her dream was to be a journalist, but today at age 32 she is proud to say that she is working to raise awareness about solar lights and the importance of clean energy.

 

As the Marketing Manager for SolarAid’s social enterprise SunnyMoney, Ivy Nkhambule often needs to go out to communities, meaning she spends a lot of travelling on the road. Amongst other things, she organises group discussions with local people, goes on roadshows and participates in projects with a focus on women in different aspects of life.

“Most people in Malawi don’t know about solar lights. If they see the problem of not having electricity, they go out and buy a candle. We need to raise awareness that there are better alternatives. We tell them about the advantages of using solar lights and how they can access them.”

Ivy believes that the issue of clean energy was a calling that came to her, especially in terms of changing the mindset of the youth. She is now aspiring for a degree in youth development as she believes that the future lies with children.

“Malawi is made up to a large portion of young people. That is where the future lies! That is why we go out in the villages, or we go into schools where we can meet with all the pupils that are learning. I think we have been to every school in Malawi!”

Her biggest dream is that no child should have to worry about electricity, or if their parents will be able to buy a candle or batteries for them to be able to study in the evening. However, another problem in Malawi is also that a lot of people are buying fake solar lights. 

“Fake solar lights are costly, they run out of batteries very quickly, and there is no procedure here on how to throw away the batteries. That’s what we explain to communities, and to the young people in particular. What we do is we provide awareness, and help them understand the impact of using these cheap products on the environment. We want them to comprehend this at a younger age, as it is easier to change the youth mindset than the mindset of people in their 40s or 50s.”

Ivy thinks it is important for local people like herself to show and inspire others to make the switch to clean energy. Although she grew up with electricity, her grandparents were not connected to the grid. When she would go to visit them during the holidays there was no light in the evenings.

The communities can relate to me, to my experience. I can explain how my life was when I was younger, and how it is now, so they are encouraged to change their way of living. Yes, I had access to electricity growing up, but that doesn’t mean that all of my relatives had access to electricity.”

In Malawi, only 10% of the population is connected to the grid, however, due to the many black-outs that the country is suffering from, everyone is left without electricity at times. However, Ivy is seeing big changes in terms of how many people are using solar lights since she started working at SunnyMoney in 2012.

“Everyone has been used to buying cheap lights and candles. But things are different today, and my son, who is two years old, has never seen a candle in his life. When we go to my grandparents, where there is no electricity grid, I don’t take my light with me, because I know there is solar energy. So my younger son doesn’t notice anything. There is a big difference between my two children. My first son, who is 13 years old, looks at his little brother and says: ‘you’re better off than I ever was’.”

Although Malawi is still facing a lot of challenges in terms of access to clean energy for everyone, Ivy remains optimistic: “When I visit my grandparents today, I don’t find any batteries on the floor, like it was before, and nobody is using candles anymore. Everyone has access to solar energy. That is the kind of Malawi I want to see, that is the change I want to see for everyone.”

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Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne
“I am now respected in the village and women and young people come to me to seek my advice about investments and important decisions they wish to make.”

Awa Sene – Shop owner, 37, Senegal

Awa Sene is a shop owner in Khassid, a village of 751 inhabitants situated 18km from the town of Fatick in south-west Senegal. She is also a local champion, inspiring others in her community and demonstrating how solar electricity can be used to improve livelihoods.

 

In Khassid, as in many of the neighbouring villages, there is limited access to energy, creating a barrier to local development for small businesses and households, and restricting opportunities for economic growth and activity. 

In rural Senegal, 75% of women are uneducated or have a very low level of education and business and accounting skills to run a business in a more structured way. Still, 90% of them are entrepreneurs. Solar technologies have the potential to satisfy rural communities’ energy needs, however, in most cases, they are inaccessible due to their high upfront cost. In addition, financial institutions are reluctant to lend money to women to buy equipment whose prices range from US$1,000 to US$8,000. Firstly because they don’t trust their business skills and their ability to repay the loan, and secondly because of gender bias ingrained in the local norms and traditions.

Despite these challenges and other personal challenges of her own, Awa, a 37-year-old widowed mother of six, is committed to providing for her family and making a success of her enterprise. She discovered solar freezers in 2018 when she attended the Fatick Solar Energy Fair.  “When I saw the solar freezer for the first time, I understood the opportunities it could offer to me and to the rest of the village. Living in an off-grid area, we walk many kilometres to buy ice, which often melts before we get home. Without refrigeration, food goes to waste very quickly.” 

Awa had the idea of purchasing a solar freezer to help her business expand and offer Khassid’s inhabitants new services. Despite her motivation to succeed, Awa was lacking the necessary means of her own. She then entered a programme run by Energy 4 Impact in partnership with Fatick’s Regional Development Agency, that helps self-driven women develop a business plan, acquire further training in business, finance and solar technology. 

Once Awa had completed her training, she was introduced to a local micro-finance institution to apply for an 865,200 Senegalese Franc loan (repayable in two years) which she needed to cover the partial cost of the solar freezer. The rest of the cost was subsidised by the Fatick’s Regional Development Agency.

Since acquiring the freezer, Awa’s turnover has increased from 80,000 CFA francs a month to 200,00 CFA francs a month, with a monthly profit of 127,000 CFA francs. She has launched the first cold trade in her village, selling both fresh and refrigerated food, including fruit juices and vegetable purees, and soft drinks, which are very popular and selling fast. Awa now needs to recharge her freezer several times a day to ensure that she meets demand and generate significant profit margins.

Awa now owns a second shop in the village market, and she employs two young women to help her. She will soon be finalising the repayment of her loan, within less than two years, and her success has earned her the respect of her fellow villagers. 

“My success story has brought me a lot in terms of leadership. I am now respected in the village and women and young people come to me to seek my advice about investments and important decisions they wish to make.

Awa is now also managing the village’s tontine, a system of granting credit through a community fund bringing together 30 women as members and raising savings of up to 1,500,000 CFA francs or more per year. The interest rate from the credit granted to applicants is also used to manage the village’s ‘social cases’ (orphans, disabled people and single women), so that it benefits the most vulnerable people.

Awa was named Best Entrepreneur of the Year at the April 2019 Fatick Solar Energy Forum, where she had the opportunity to talk about her journey and the challenges she has overcome.

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Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne Illustration by Sarah Kilcoyne
“One cannot be successful without challenges but to become a successful entrepreneur in the long run, we need to have strong determination and commitment.”

Mina Sanjel – Entrepreneur, 48, Nepal

Mina used to make traditional Khuwa, a solidified form of milk products, and one of the most popular and most desired sweets in Nepal. She quit in 1997 to start her own dairy business and is now encouraging people to start their own company.

 

“I started a dairy with 40 litres of milk. Today, I own eight dairies and I sell 2,000 litres of milk per day,” proudly explains the 48-year-old resident of Dalchoki, Lalitpur. 

Mina Sanjel, who used to make Khuwa the traditional way, sets a good example of a social entrepreneur in her community. She decided to stop making Khuma because it required too much time and effort, especially with three young children to take care of. 

One cannot be successful without challenges but to become a successful entrepreneur in the long run, we need to have strong determination and commitment. For me, honesty and trust are more important than business principles. Of course, we need investment, but in my experience, investment was never a barrier.”

In the early phase of launching her business, Mina was solely taking care of every side of the process, from collecting and weighing milk to checking fat, along with the household chores. There was no electricity in the village and no refrigerator, causing the milk to sour. There was also no road up to the dairy, so Mina used to hire local labour to carry milk on their backs. For almost a decade, she was losing money, yet, she never gave up. Over the years and with the support from her husband, family members and her consistent hard work, Mina grew from one small dairy to eight dairies and evolved into a successful business.

“People trust males more than females, so my husband would go ask for money with the referral from the local political leaders. Once, we had borrowed money from a shopkeeper and we could not pay back on time. The moneylender captured our vehicle (with the milk) and threatened to throw all the milk on the road. I still remember how devastated I felt on that day.”

The turning point was when Mina’s eldest son fully joined the family business and started to drive the vehicle filled with milk to the centre of Lalitpur district. From that point, Mina took care of the overall internal management, while her husband and son were managing external matters. Mina, along with her family members, is taking any critical decisions together and she was soon able to build a beautiful house in Lalitpur and to buy land in Kathmandu. Today, Mina is dreaming of opening a large and organised dairy business in her own land of Kathmandu.

Mina has received skill training from Scaling up Energy Access through the Women’s Economic Empowerment Nepal Project of the Centre for Rural Technology supported by ENERGIA (the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy and Hivos (Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries).

“At some point, I was not even able to pay the money to the local farmers who provided me with milk for the dairy business. At that moment, I almost thought about closing the company, but I had no idea how to pay back the farmers. That’s why I decided not to give up. Finally, I overcame all the hardship hours. The trust which I build with the farmers and my honesty with them helped me to become a successful woman entrepreneur.”

Mina helped to enhance community ownership by encouraging people to start their own business and set a good example of social entrepreneurship, such as encouraging the local farmers towards buffalo farming professionally.


Thanks to Solar Sister, Sunny Money, Solar Aid and Energy 4 Impact for their contributions to this article.