An African elephant calf walks amongst the herd, sheltered from predators by the adults. (National Geographic for Disney/Oscar Dewhurst)

Africa At The Crossroads Of Women’s Empowerment & Renewable Energy

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In recognition of Women’s History Month, our friends over at National Geographic are shining a spotlight on Africa, and that reminds us that we haven’t covered much news about women innovators on the continent’s energy landscape. As in many nations elsewhere, women in African countries are under-represented in the high-dollar echelons of the renewable energy field. However, activity is picking up at the entrepreneurial level, and that means we have some catching up to do.

Before we get to the innovators, enjoy this exclusive clip from the new Nat Geo series “Queens.” Narrated by Angela Bassett, with an the all-women production team exploring how females of the animal world handle the day-to-day challenges of living their lives. It’s unspooling tonight, March 4, on Nat Geo TV and streaming to follow Disney+ and Hulu beginning March 5.

Closing The Gender Gap For Financing Renewable Energy In Africa

One big change is the availability of outside funding earmarked specifically for women to finance innovators and entrepreneurs in renewable energy ventures and other climate related fields.

Last December, Amazon issued a recap of the new Climate Gender Equity Fund, a new public-private funding partnership that launched in November 2022. It has already pulled in a total of $25 million including a $5 million contribution from USAID, the US Agency for International Development.

That’s just for starters. Along with Amazon and USAID, the new fund is also spearheaded by the investor organization 2X Global. The 2X Global umbrella covers GenderSmart and 2X Collaborative, two groups that are described as helping to catalyze “billions of gender-smart investing dollars since 2018.”

The need for some kind of push to get the renewable energy wheels in motion for women entrepreneurs in Africa is clear. CGEF cites statistics from the data analytics hub The Big Deal, which reports that “less than 1% of all funding raised by startups in Africa went to female single founders and female-only founding teams” in 2021. The amount of financing totaled about $37 million out of almost $3.2 billion, or “one one-hundredth of what their male counterparts raised,” CGEF emphasized.

Getting Women’s Renewable Energy Wheels In Motion

CGEF announced its first three awardees in December, with all three grants going to Africa. It’s too soon for the results to roll in, but if all goes according to plan, the new grants will foster quite a stir in the renewable energy pot. They are:

The Nigeria-based Clean Technology Hub, which is described as “an accelerator with a network of over 60 women-led startups working on clean energy and sustainability solutions in Africa, including a company that designs solar driers for rural farmers.”

“Clean Technology Hub CEO and co-founder Ifeoma Malo and her team plan to use the grant to provide seed funding for women-led businesses working on climate initiatives that benefit women and children,” CGEF notes.

WomHub, based in South Africa, is another accelerator that provides funding, financial support, and leadership training to more than 2,000 women business founders in STEM fields. “The accelerator also leads girls’ STEM education efforts across 30 countries,” CGEF observes. “WomHub recently supported the Solar Power Café, which provides fully automated solar backup power for small businesses.”

WomHub was co-founded by Hema Vallabh and Naadiya Moosajee, who already have laid plans to expand their virtual program and make additional grants to help startups get off the ground.

Rounding out the trio is the Kenyan advisory firm M-Kyala Ventures, which is credited with driving women-owned businesses in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. CGEF notes that M-Kyala has “specifically supported women working on climate smart agriculture solutions, including a gender agroecology accelerator in Uganda.”

“Founder and CEO Carolyne Kirabo is a gender-lens expert who chose the firm’s name from the word ‘mukyala,’ which means “woman” in Luganda, a common dialect in Uganda,” CGEF adds. “With the CGEF grant, Kirabo and her team plan to directly invest in women-led companies that are working on projects related to solar water pumps, reforestation, plastic recycling, agroecology, and organic fertilizer.”

More Gender Equity In Energy Policy

Another approach is illustrated by a global United Nations program aimed at empowering women and girls globally. Korea and the Republic of Luxembourg have provided an assist to the Powering Equality branch of the program, aimed specifically at supporting UN Development Programme activities in Ethiopia.

“In Ethiopia, access to energy is a binding constraint with a strong gender dimension. Lack of access to energy affects women’s well-being and economic opportunities. In many rural communities, the collection of firewood is the sole responsibility of women and girls,” UNDP notes.

“The design and implementation of projects focused on energy access fail to match the needs of the women, treating them often as beneficiaries rather than active agents of change. They rarely involve women in big decisions relating to energy policy, on energy security, on reform of the sector,” they add.

The multi-level Powering Equality program focuses on opening the doors of energy policy-making to women, with a sharp focus on stimulating clean energy investments.

The program also focuses on the local level. “In addition, the project will support actions to enhance women’s participation in the production and distribution of rural energy technologies in recognition of the fact that women are the primary energy managers in Ethiopia and are commonly responsible for providing lighting, heating and cooking in households,” UNDP explains.

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Hyper-Local Change At The Cookstove Level

The focus on women’s household energy management calls attention to the micro level. Millions of women household energy managers in Africa already use renewable energy for cooking, in the form of raw biomass. Kerosene has also taken hold. Whether renewable or fossil, though, both fuels are highly problematic, including the personal safety risks involved in gathering firewood.

Last month, the African Development Bank took stock of the impact on public health among African nations:

“Close to one billion people in Africa do not have access to clean cooking and rely on biomass or kerosene, which cause high levels of indoor air pollution. As a result, about 600,000 African women and children die annually from the hazards of cooking with wooden biomass or fossil fuels, according to official data.”

On a global scale according ADB, the time women spend gathering firewood adds up to an economic loss of $800 billion each year. “The health cost is estimated at $1.4 trillion annually,” ADB adds.

One focus of attention is new “clean cookstove” technologies that use fuel more efficiently, and fossil gas has already emerged as a focus of ADB’s interest. However, the bank is also part of the newly launched Africa Clean Cooking Consortium, which could help widen the field to include more renewable energy technologies and sustainable fuels. The new consortium includes the African Union Commission, the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal, and private sector partners as well as the government of Ireland.

African organizations like Solar Sister are already working with women entrepreneurs to introduce solar energy for lighting and other tasks in “last-mile” communities. Solar cookstoves may not be far behind, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Photo: Women entrepreneurs are bringing more renewable energy to communities and households in Africa (clip from the Savannah episode of Queens courtesy of National Geographic).


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3328 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey