Solar Sister: How 2020 Changed Things

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Originally published in The Beam.

Solar Sister is a glorious program that invests in women’s clean energy businesses within off-grid African communities. The NGO’s founder and CEO Katherine Lucey, who has a background in banking and finance, decided to use her previous experience as a tool to empower women entrepreneurship. The effort was repaid and they have recently been selected to receive funding from the Greta Thunberg Foundation. One year after our first chat, The Beam spoke again with Lucey to see how 2020 changed things.

Mforo, Tanzania, a village near Moshi, Tanzania.

“It’s a business opportunity and more than that: it’s a chance to take action and create a better future for communities and the environment as well.”

Since the foundation, we now have over 5,000 local women entrepreneurs in Tanzania and Nigeria. We continue to expand and we have many ambitions around growing our impact of both energy access and women empowerment.

The biggest thing that happened last year was what hit all of us: the global pandemic of COVID-19. It has been a big interruption in everyone’s life of course and the rural communities with which we are working were also affected. People often lack access to healthcare facilities and the economic effects of shutting down for months were especially felt by women. For us, it’s been challenging because we are a grass-roots and a people-to-people business. On one hand they are taking care of more childcare work, and, on the other, entrepreneurs have been impacted by loss of customers and loss of income as a consequence. So the pandemic is hitting these individuals the hardest.

Solar Sister entrepreneur Julieth Mollel walking to visit her neighbor Agness Daudi.

The work we do has never been more important, because what we do is really giving women a way to earn an income in a very flexible and resilient manner. They are self-employed and so they have been able to amazingly come through the difficulties. However, we can see a general economic slowdown. For instance, a woman (whose husband lost his job as a teacher) had her job at Solar Sister and her savings from the business to keep them going. When the economy will open again for them, things will turn around. That ability to be an entrepreneur and earn an income on your own terms adds so much to the resilience of the woman herself and the family. This is the positive outcome that we are seeing.

Solar Sister’s values are trust, sisterhood and grit. It’s that grit that we see everyday from these women entrepreneurs that enables them to keep going and fighting their way through in the most difficult circumstances. I have to say everybody is excited about going back to work.

For several months, we decided to keep meetings completely remote and our staff would pick up the phone and support locals by answering all questions and doing training virtually. On the positive side, a lot of connections were built and the business development associates could have a one-to-one conversation rather than a meeting with 10 people. Although many are missing the peer support and the in person interaction they had from group meetings, in this way they had personalised coaching that weren’t given before. Going forward, this is one of things that we hope to continue. We want to involve high potential entrepreneurs who have been with us for years and have proven their commitment in a business program to take them to the next level. Our goal is to double their business income.

At the same time, the lockdown made the potential of solar energy more visible across the world. Solar power is distributable, makes people in control of their own energy and sources. It creates a sense of independence and it just fits in so many ways with the work of these women entrepreneurs on their own terms. The other huge change we have been seeing in the past two years is that there is so much more awareness of climate change and that we really need to do something about it. This happened thanks to a lot more people speaking out, focusing on the issue of climate change and bringing it forward.

For Solar Sister, it is absolutely at the core of what we do in two ways. First, women in rural communities are really on the frontlines of the negative impacts of climate change. They notice that rain comes differently from the past, they experience floods and droughts and temperature changes. They know their communities’ ability to feed itself has been harmed.  Even if they are probably the people who contributed to this impact the least, they are often the most vulnerable. Secondly, they do what they can where they are. It’s a business opportunity and more than that: it’s a chance to take action and create a better future for communities and the environment as well.

I think the Greta Thunberg’s humanitarian prize happened because we have stayed very true to our mission and our core for clean energy and women empowerment. We will continue to do what we do and do it very well. We make sure that women have the energy they need and can build their lives and their agency so that they are in control of their decisions. As we see more and more women empowered in that way, that is what everyone needs. It is a very positive wave. That’s why I am so inspired by these women, who are doing all that they can against the biggest odds. Around the world, I do see change. So I think this is a signal that a shift is happening and people are assessing climate change, from the corporate world at least. The political world will follow. There will be a change and it will be a bottom-up change.”

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The Beam Magazine is an independent climate solutions and climate action magazine. It tells about the most exciting solutions, makes a concrete contribution to eliminating climate injustices and preserving this planet for all of us in its diversity and beauty. Our cross-country team of editors works with a network of 150 local journalists in 50 countries talking to change makers and communities. THE BEAM is published in Berlin and distributed in nearly 1,000 publicly accessible locations, to companies, organizations and individuals in 40 countries across the world powered by FairPlanet.

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