In conversation with Mariama Kamara about Sierra Leone’s main challenges, the injustice she experienced as a black woman in business, Africa’s difficult access to finance, and how women are a very important part of the solution to bring clean energy to all.
“Growing up in Sierra Leone was amazing and I have many beautiful childhood memories which I will always cherish,” explains Mariama Kamara, Founder of Smiling Through Light. That was before March 1991, when a brutal civil war broke out in this beautiful country on the West Coast of Africa. Mariama was nine when she was forced to move from Freetown, in Sierra Leone, to the United Kingdom. “Moving to London was a big challenge for me; apart from the cold weather, I experienced a lot of racism at primary school and during my early years and found it really difficult to adjust,” she explains.
When I met with Mariama, I was instantly inspired by the energy she gives to her organisation and by the enthusiasm with which she was leading her projects. During our conversation, we talked about Sierra Leone’s main challenges, the injustice she experienced as a black woman in business, Africa’s difficult access to finance, and how women are a very important part of the solution to bring clean energy to all.
Firstly before getting deep into the topic, can you tell us a little bit about your personal story and where you got the idea of Smiling Through Light?
My background is in International Development and I have always been interested in development issues especially related to poverty, energy, education, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and HIV issues. I have a MSc in Development Studies from Birkbeck College and BSc (Hons) in Psychology. I started thinking about Smiling Through Light after a trip to Sierra Leone in 2011, on a placement with Restless Development as a SRH Curriculum Development Technical Assistant. During the trip, I got an opportunity to travel to different areas of the country and everywhere I went, communities were either using kerosene or candles to light up their homes. I remember visiting a slum community in Freetown called Kroo Bay, where the majority of the community had no access to electricity and relied on dangerous solutions for lightning. I remember thinking: “This is wrong. We are living in the 21st century; there must be safer, cleaner and more reliable lightning options”.
Personal experiences also underscore my understanding of the importance of energy. When I was a young girl growing up in Sierra Leone, I had no other choice but to study by a kerosene lamp at night. The effect this had has stayed with me throughout my life. That’s part of the reasons why I believe in the importance of sustainable energy and the need to work in collaboration with different organisations to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to access relevant energy sources, particularly solar. Energy doesn’t just provide light but income, prosperity and sustainability. Clean energy access can change lives.
What would you identify as the main challenges in Sierra Leone today?
The Republic of Sierra Leone is blessed with an abundance of natural resources such as diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold and many other riches. However, the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Poverty, poor health system, maternal mortality, weak low literacy rates, environmental degradation and the one most related to me; low access to electricity, are some of Sierra Leone’s remaining challenges today.
What is the state of the grid infrastructure in Sierra Leone?
The state of the grid infrastructure is poor. Sierra Leone has one of the lowest rates of electrification globally. Only 13% of the population has access to electricity; most of them live in urban areas. The rural electrification is as low as 1%. Petrol or diesel generators are often used because most of the regions lack a stable public power supply. For lighting, people use kerosene, battery lamps or candles, and 96.8% of the population cooks with firewood or charcoal.
Some of the challenges relate to old networks, substandard materials used for electrical connections, old electrical equipments, high voltage rating and energy conservation habits not inculcated. There is significant potential for the use of renewable energy, particularly solar energy and hydroelectric power, but their development and use have been slow process to implement.
How would you describe the work you do with Smiling Through Light?
Imagine waking up in a rural area in Sierra Leone where you have around 12 hours of sunlight in a day. You are happy, smiling, full of energy and doing all your daily activities. In the evening the sun goes down and you are forced to rely on toxic and expensive kerosene lanterns as your primary source of light. The sun is very important in our lives and produces energy. A solar cell converts sunlight into electricity. Once the sun hits a solar panel the energy is made into electricity. We are saying NO to kerosene and working with a network of women to provide clean, reliable and sustainable energy in Sierra Leone through the sales of solar products. By setting up distribution networks and supporting small female-run businesses, the business helps communities access safe, clean light technology, whilst simultaneously creating employment and income opportunities. The profits of the company are reinvested in the social enterprise: buying more solar products, and providing capacity building training and ongoing support to the women. Smiling Through Light works in partnership with the UN Sustainable Energy for All People-Centered Accelerator Programme; a voluntary partnership of stakeholders which aims to enhance clean energy access for the poorest people, who will not be reached by business as usual; but rather by unlocking finance from private and public sources, strengthening collaboration and connections between stakeholders in the energy, gender and social justice sectors, and increasing women’s full participation in sustainable energy solutions.
How important is the energy access issue for the Sierra Leone government?
When I started Smiling Through Light, the Sierra Leonean government was not talking about energy access and the use of solar products at all. It took time, a lot of lobbying, and joint efforts from different campaigning organisations such as Power for All, which works to advances renewable, decentralised electrification solutions as the fastest, most cost-effective and sustainable approach to universal energy access. In 2016, with support from the British Department for International Development (DFID), the government of Sierra Leone signed the first Energy Africa/DFID compact agreement. The Sierra Leone Energy Revolution is the start of a series of renewable energy initiatives to eradicate energy poverty in the country. Key commitments were made to supply basic power to all of Sierra Leone’s population within 9 years (by 2025), deliver ‘modern power’ to one million people by 2020, introduce household solar to all 149 chiefdoms in the country within the next 18 months and eliminate import duties and VAT on qualified, internationally certified solar products.
Your work and your company brings a new narrative about Sierra Leone. It’s not about the civil war or Ebola anymore, it’s about women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship.
This is very important for me. The story about Sierra Leone and Africa in general has always been told by others with negative narratives, always forgetting the positives. We have challenges but we also have positive and inspirational stories to share. During TED Talks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ as it creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. With the telling of that single story, about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
Through all my different initiatives I found my own authentic and cultural voice. In July 2016, I set up Beam Talks; quarterly events which change the narratives about Sierra Leone. Beam Talks is Smiling Through Light’s UK initiative which aims to inspire young women by highlighting different job sectors amongst Sierra Leoneans in the UK. The event provides a space where role models can discuss their achievements, experiences and challenges with a new generation of change-makers.
How do you convince women and girls in Sierra Leone to buy and use solar products? What are their main incentives?
Today, going solar is easier and more beneficial than ever. The difference that one light and one empowered woman can make is huge. Convincing the women and girls in Sierra Leone to go solar can be difficult, but we have been showing them the benefits it provides, which makes them more enthusiastic. We are actively engaging community members in our planning through focus group discussions, brainstorming, capacity development and use of different cultural activities such as storytelling. For them, the main incentives of using a clean, reliable and affordable products are the cost savings, time savings, savings on energy bills, savings from the purchase of kerosene, candles and batteries, health benefits, grades improvements for students, more hours of light to run a business, security, use of diverse products, low maintenance costs, warranty, community network of women and an innovative and technological solution. The ripple effect of this technology is truly impressive and beneficial to communities.
Are people in Sierra Leone aware of the health issues and environment impacts associated with kerosene?
Yes, people talk about it all the time. This week there was a fire because someone knocked over a kerosene lamp. Community members always talk about inhaling the fumes and how toxic and dangerous it is. It affects their breathing, makes them dizzy, they suffer from headaches, vomiting and some blow out thick black mucus.
When I started Smiling Through Light, the key message was ‘Join us to Say NO to kerosene lamps! Work with us to improve the lives of women and girls in Sierra Leone through innovative solar products’. This January, I was in Sierra Leone conducting focus group discussions and over 95% of the women I spoke to do not use kerosene anymore. It has taken a while but through joint efforts the message is getting there.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
What I enjoy the most is empowering women entrepreneurs in rural areas to bring light to their communities and creating access to life changing clean energy technologies whilst simultaneously creating employment and income opportunities. The smile on people’s faces when they switch on a solar lamp makes everything meaningful and worthwhile. It is the stories of the entrepreneurs, customers and communities that bring to life why we do what we do.
What were the biggest challenges you’ve had to face since building Smiling Through Light?
Access to finance and lack of working capital have been my biggest challenges. I have been funding Smiling Through Light with support from family and friends, and with initial funding from PwC to conduct my first pilot study. Insufficient financing has long plagued efforts to get electricity to the billions of people who need it. I have developed pilot projects that demonstrate the viability of the business model but securing the financing to scale up operations has proven to be a challenge.
There are so many inequalities in international finance in unlocking rapid growth for the distributed energy clean energy sector. Put simply most donors or investors will not support black-owned businesses. There is a misconception that their funds will not be managed properly, systems are not in place and the single narrative of corruption continues. We have to look at the data and which companies are receiving funding. Most of the financing going to Africa is debt financing and more loans. Early stage companies are on a mission to make changes, especially how the world uses energy and everyone should be supported. Businesses should all have equal opportunities especially if they have excellent business model, team, relevant structures, policies and sustainable.
We are all working towards SDG7 to ‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for ALL’. For energy poverty to be eradicated we need to look at different funding pipelines and solutions to solve the problem. Financial inequality has no place in the globalised world that we all live in.
What would you say have been your biggest achievement with Smiling Through Light ?
As Carrie Fisher put it: ‘Stay afraid but do it anyway’. My biggest achievement with Smiling Through Light is having the belief in myself to start the business from idea stage to now reality. The journey has been extremely challenging but I have never given up. I want communities in Sierra Leone and Africa more widely to have access to clean energy solutions instead of relying on toxic and hazardous fumes to light up their homes. It is just not acceptable and a problem which we can solve easily with the adequate policies, support and resources. Through this journey I have learnt so many things about myself, my dreams and values. I understand that it’s imperative to value all the negative experiences that have occurred in my life (war, racism, use of kerosene, being a black woman in business) and understanding that it’s an opportunity to get better. I have made mistakes but know that our mistakes are gifts, guideposts in our learning and growth as people and teach us powerful lessons which only make us uniquely who we are.
What’s next for Smiling Through Light?
I just received my first funding for a project entitled ‘Shining a Light on Kamakwie’. The project aims to distribute solar lamps to households in Kamakwie (in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone), to offer light for study, income generating activities, and reducing the use of hazardous fumes. It will also raise community awareness on the benefits of clean energy products through storytelling. As an inclusive eco-enterprise, this project not only aims to be financially sustainable, but equally strives to generate environmental, economic and social benefits for local communities.
This interview was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more