In the bustle of a busy marketplace in southwestern Nigeria, Felicia Abiola-Ige sets up a stall with a wide array of solar lamps, torches, phone chargers, home systems and energy efficient stoves. She lays solar panels facing up towards the sun and places products on their boxes on the tabletop so people can pick them up and see how they work. She’s dressed in a bright orange Solar Sister t-shirt. Soon enough, several people have gathered around, leaning in to hear what these products can do.
Mrs. Abiola-Ige, 46, a science teacher from Oyo State, heard about pico solar products when a Solar Sister business associate came to demonstrate clean energy products at her school. She was surprised to learn about solar technology with a strong light and a reasonable price that could erase the need for kerosene or batteries.
“I wondered how something this useful is sold at this price? I decided to test it out.”
She bought a small d.light solar lamp for US$8 and gave it to her grandmother. Seeing how well it worked, Mrs. Abiola-Ige bought a larger solar lamp with a phone charger. From there, she signed up to be a Solar Sister entrepreneur and hasn’t looked back.
She and her teenage daughter Opeyemi go to schools, churches, cooperatives, hospitals and homes to advertise solar products and drum up business. As a teacher, she uses her networks in the education sector to talk about solar and sell products.
“We have even gone out to other parts of Oyo State. People are very interested.”
In the past several months, she has sold over 40 clean energy products.
For Africans living in rural areas, electricity is scarce and unlikely to arrive any time soon. In rural Tanzania, just 7% of people have access to power and approximately 70 million people outside of Nigeria’s cities are without electricity. Regular power cuts mean even those with grid access are often left in the dark.
Kitchen smoke causes four million deaths per year and is the leading cause of death for women and children under five in the developing world. Household pollution in Nigeria is the biggest killer after Malaria and AIDS.
These are the issues that will only worsen with population growth and climate change. These are the issues that disproportionately affect women.
“If energy poverty were a person, it would be a woman,” says Olasimbo Sojinrin, Country Manager of Solar Sister Nigeria.
“In terms of how this affects the population, it affects women more than men. If you look at rural areas, 70–80 % of dwellers are women and girls. They are the ones who manage energy in the household. They are the ones who manage light. So it makes sense that we are not just the problem, we are an essential part of the solution.”
As a social enterprise, Solar Sister works to eradicate energy poverty by offering local women a chance to kickstart a clean energy business.
“We recruit, train and support women entrepreneurs to sell clean energy products,” Sojinrin says. “These women are trusted members of their communities. When they come with a new product, people listen.”
How it works
Through an innovative model that combines bottom lines with social and environmental goals, Solar Sister shows that economic empowerment of women is key to clean energy distribution in rural Africa.
Solar Sister sources reliable and marketable clean energy products from leading manufacturers, such as d.light and Greenlight Planet, and sells them to their entrepreneur network across Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. Entrepreneurs then use their own networks and local markets to get solar lamps and clean stoves out to those that need them. Entrepreneurs earn extra income and their customers benefit from clean energy.
“Solar Sister shows that women are not just victims; we ourselves are doing something about getting out of energy poverty,” Sojinrin says.
Research by Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship found that Solar Sister’s approach to supporting women clean energy entrepreneurs has far-reaching economic, social and environmental impacts. The 2017 study based on customer surveys in Tanzania found that “solar lanterns create a positive cycle of economic growth that can revolutionise a family’s financial well-being”, and that “solar-powered lighting protects the health of each person in the household and spurs intrinsic changes in women’s self-image and perceived agency.”
Dr. Leslie Gray, lead researcher, says the impact of solar lanterns goes beyond light: “Solar-powered lighting is a technology central to the development of rural Africa, transforming the education, health, time, finances, and sense of power in every household it reaches.”
The last mile
To reach Odeh village, you must drive two hours north of Nigeria’s industrial centre Onitsha city, recently named the city with the world’s worst air pollution, and then take a 15-minute boat ride across the Niger river.
Odeh is a riverine community of a few thousand people, mostly cash crop farmers and fishermen. It’s a perfect example of the so-called “last mile”, off-grid communities where woodfire stoves, kerosene lamps, AA batteries and — for those who can afford it — small petrol-powered generators are your only energy options.
Victoria Ikem, a farmer from Odeh who became a Solar Sister entrepreneur last year, says bringing solar products and clean stoves into this community has transformed people’s lives, including her own.
“There are so many advantages. You save a lot of money that you usually spend on fuel, like kerosene. And the profits I make from selling, I use to pay for school fees. My husband is not around, and I have three children to send to school.”
In communities like Odeh, there is a great need for energy but cash flow is seasonal, so Victoria plans her sales at harvest time when farmers have money in hand. In such last mile communities that will not see electrical power any time soon, Solar Sister entrepreneurs are a community’s best and only trusted source of energy.
Back in Oyo town, Mrs. Abiola-Ige has just sold another solar light, this time to a Baptist reverend and his wife. For her, the income is helpful especially when her teacher salary is delayed. She also believes it is essential for more women to get involved in solar businesses.
“We are the ones who need this energy! The children come to us asking for light, for food. The more women we get into this business the better.”
In a male-dominated sector, there are relatively few women benefitting from solar business opportunities. “I know only one other woman who does this, and she is a Solar Sister entrepreneur,” she says.
Solar Sister is seeking to change this, one entrepreneur at a time.