The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to achieve universal access to modern energy services and gender equality by 2030. Both targets are far from being reached, as an estimated 16% of the world’s population still have little or no access to electricity. Among them, from 50 to 70%, are women and girls, who are the most affected by energy poverty. They are forced to walk long distances to collect firewood, they are responsible for in-house activities, they spend their incomes on inefficient and dangerous kerosene but their economic contribution is unpaid, unrecognized and undervalued.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a woman dies every minute from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, often due to a lack of electricity and inadequate lighting. Thus, it is time to recognize the strong linkage between a zero carbon transition and women’s empowerment. Only by reducing energy poverty and empowering women entrepreneurship a real social and economic development can be achieved. We spoke with Anya Cherneff, Executive Director of Empower Generation, a US nonprofit social enterprise with affiliates in Nepal, which aims to empower women to set up businesses selling solar energy products in rural communities.
What’s Empower Generation’s story?
Empower Generation was founded in 2011 by Anya Cherneff, Bennett Cohen, and Sita Adhikari. Anya was looking to offer sustainable employment to women otherwise vulnerable to slavery while Bennett was thinking about how to enable the widespread adoption of clean energy in developing countries. Sita ran a micro-finance cooperative in Nepal but wanted to start a business to employ women in her community. When Anya and Bennett met Sita in Nepal, together they identified a tremendous opportunity to create a gender and energy paradigm shift by empowering women to become clean energy entrepreneurs.
What is your mission and how do you pursue your goals?
Empower Generation empowers women to distribute clean energy solutions to their rural communities. We address several problems that result from extreme poverty. We develop sustainable livelihoods for rural women, otherwise vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. We provide access to energy for the poor, reducing the number of people reliant on expensive and dangerous household fuels like kerosene and firewood. We do this by providing low-interest loans, business skills training, mentorship and access to a supply chain of clean energy products, such as solar lights and cookstoves, to rural women to start their own businesses. (See pages 8–9 of our 2016 Annual Report for additional information.)
Why is it so important to include women in the energy transition?
Women suffer the most from energy poverty. They are the ones expected to spend much of their time collecting fuel sources, sometimes traveling long distances from their village, making them vulnerable to violence. Women and girls also suffer health problems from cooking with charcoal, dung or wood, exposing them to indoor pollution. In 2012, more than 60% of all premature deaths from household air pollution were among women and children, according to WHO.
Women have incentive to adopt clean energy technology. As household energy managers, they already have knowledge of local energy markets and know the energy needs of their communities. Therefore, it makes sense for women to lead the way through the energy transition.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, plagued by deep-rooted gender-based violence and inequality. What are the main problems Empower Generation faces?
Many of the entrepreneurs and sales agents in our network would ordinarily have difficulty finding employment due to age, caste, lack of education, and gender. The initial challenge we face is getting their communities to trust them and buy a new, innovative product. We address this challenge by working to build the reputation of our entrepreneurs and their sales agents by holding local sales promotions where we explain to customers how we support their local entrepreneur or sales agent by providing products as well as replacement parts and products for warranties. We also use sales promotions as an opportunity to educate customers on the benefits of clean energy and the products our network offers. Having an association with an international organization gives our entrepreneurs and sales agents a certain prestige in their community and helps to elevate their status and enhance trust.
How is Empower Generation making a difference?
Since 2011, Empower Generation has helped 23 women start 20 businesses, deploying 300 sales agents across 12 districts in Nepal. Our distribution network of women-led businesses has sold 58,580 clean energy products; afforded 294,626 people with cleaner, safer, light and power; saved families over USD 2 million in household energy expenses; and displaced 12,843 tons of CO2.
In addition, women entrepreneurs in our network learn how to manage a business, earn an income, employ people, and are active in their communities. Empower Generation provides rural women the skills not only to run their own businesses but also helps them develop their confidence and increase their visibility to take on other leadership roles. After 20 years, the Nepalese government decided to hold local elections and encouraged women to run as part of a mandate in effort to create a better gender balance. Five women entrepreneurs from our distribution network ran for local office. Two won their elections: Chhaya Devkota is now Deputy Mayor of Bhanjani Municipality, and Gita Pariyar is now Ward Member of Taklung, Gorkha district. If rural women, like Chhaya and Gita, are not empowered economically and politically, they cannot address the gender inequities in their communities and create effective change.
Considering the unstable political situation in Nepal, what is the role of the government in the development of renewables?
The government has an important role to play and they do a few things around renewables in Nepal (as to the effectiveness of them, well that’s up to you to decide).
First, early in 2017, the government-controlled Nepal Electric Authority’s leader uncovered a scandal where they were diverting power from general supply plus negotiated a pipeline deal with India, so the electricity reliability improved significantly, especially around the Kathmandu valley. This not only tanked the solar sales in Nepal for 2017 but might have caused significant residual damage, since the perception that the grid will become even more reliable (since it did for other people) is now forefront in people’s minds.
Second, there are a several different programs that the government has run under the Alternative Energy Promotion Center that both hurt and help the proliferation of renewables in Nepal.
What are Empower Generation’s perspectives for the future?
Empower Generation is focused on reaching last-mile distribution, off-grid communities in Nepal and grow our network. We are currently fundraising for our most ambitious project yet, training 300 women to become sales agents in Chitwan, Surkhet, and Kailali districts, where women have little education and employment opportunities. We are also looking to expand our model and impact worldwide by exploring opportunities in India, Myanmar, and Senegal.
Interview by Lucia Lenci