Universal energy access: what’s gender got to do with it?

Charlotte Taylor,  in partnership with Mariama Kamara, Founder and Director, Smiling Through Light

The energy sector is traditionally male-dominated with men’s access to better education, skills training, and finance enabling them to develop businesses and access markets that women have often been excluded from as a result of gendered social norms and women’s unpaid care work. In the energy world, the role of women has often been limited to that of consumers; particularly in relation to the household sphere and cooking practices. The benefits of clean cooking fuels and technologies on women and girls is championed on global platforms; and women are being increasingly recognised as important to energy access planning processes. What benefits arise, though, when we embrace and empower women as agents of change who are actively striving for, and driving us towards, Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7)?

CSW61: Women as Agents of Change

Last month, at the UN’s 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), Practical Action hosted a parallel session exploring just that: Women as Agents of Change in Sustainable Energy Access Value Chains. The session, which heard from  Practical Action’s Sudan and East Africa offices, Smiling through Light, Energy Research Institute Sudan, and Solar Sister, demonstrated that investing in women’s potential as entrepreneurs, technicians, policy-makers and thought-leaders is vital for achieving gender-transformative outcomes and more effective energy access approaches.

Image of the panellists and organising team of Practical Action's event at the 61st Commission on the Status of Women, on women as change agents in sustainable energy access value chains.

Gender Equality + Sustainable Energy Access = Opportunity for All

Across the panellists’ different experiences, from the grassroots initiative of Smiling Through Light to the global campaign of Solar Sister, a clear message could be heard: at the intersection of gender equality and sustainable energy access lies vast potential – for women’s economic empowerment, certainly, and also for sustainable development and improved wellbeing for their communities and beyond.

A briquettes entrepreneur from the Women in Energy Enterprises in Kenya (WEEK) project

The keynote speech, delivered by Lydia Muchiri, Senior Gender and Energy Advisor for Practical Action East Africa, explored the Women in Energy Enterprises in Kenya project (WEEK). Delivered in partnership with Energia, this project empowers women as providers of energy across three value chains – improved cookstoves, solar products, and biomass briquettes – in the roles of producers, suppliers and ‘brand activators’. WEEK project activities support women to build their social capital, develop fundamental business skills, and improve their confidence as entrepreneurs; these women now drive behaviour change, convincing others to adopt clean energy options. Five WEEK project entrepreneurs appeared at the recent SEforAll Forum to share their experiences, demonstrating a growing appetite to hear rural women’s grassroots knowledge on global stages.

Smiling Through Light: be the change that you want to see

Smiling Through Light’s Founder and Director Mariama Kamara highlighted the centrality of women’s knowledge, empowerment and collective action to building environmentally sustainable pathways to sustainable energy access; emphasising in particular the diverse roles women play across the energy value chain from production and transportation, to distribution and end use. At the age of nine Mariama left Sierra Leone during the civil war; after later learning that energy use in Sierra Leone was still mostly limited to kerosene for lighting, with no access to clean energy services, she started Smiling Through Light in 2014. By doing so, Mariama became the change she wanted to see. Smiling Through Light now advocates for women, as primary consumers and users of clean energy products, to be integrated into the process of designing appropriate solutions and engaged throughout the value chain to improve their livelihoods.

The path to SDG7

There remain many clear opportunities to advance women’s positions across the energy access value chain, including:

Policy – Advocate for policy that goes beyond perceiving women as victims of energy poverty or mere consumers, but as potential drivers of the sector. Embrace and lobby for the critical role of smaller, distributed energy solutions in addressing rural energy poverty, and women’s unique contribution to this sector.

Finance – Recognise that women’s access to finance is often constrained by social, political and economic constraints; i.e. collateral requirements based on land or asset ownership. Dedicate specific financing, credit facilities, grants and concessional loans to women’s sustainable energy activities.

Skills – Address the significant skills and local workforce development gaps in energy access in a way that empowers more skilled women to participate across the value chain, and educates others on the value of their contributions.

Evidence – Continue to build evidence to help inform policy on why women in clean energy value chains are uniquely positioned to make a lasting impact; bringing local women entrepreneurs and decision-makers’ voices and experiences to the fore.

An entrepreneur from the Women in Energy Enterprises in Kenya (WEEK) project makes money and heat from waste, selling to customers at market

As energy access advocates and champions of gender equality we must continue to find opportunities, like at CSW61, to demonstrate the positive impacts that women’s economic empowerment in energy access initiatives has for themselves and their families, as well as their extended communities and international development practice more broadly. We need to continue challenging damaging gendered social norms which disempower women as change-makers; and simultaneously strengthen policy coordination, knowledge sharing, financial inclusion, programmatic partnerships and research to advance women’s participation in sustainable energy development for all.

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