While privatization of electricity generation and distribution has increased electricity supplies in Uganda, it has also increased tariffs so that low- and middle-income households cannot afford energy for basic needs. Katherine Lucey is addressing this issue by concentrating on women as key agents in distributing and consuming affordable, renewable energy products; thereby pushing women to drive change in the rural energy-space.
The New Idea
Starting with solar lighting in Uganda, Katherine is tackling energy poverty in Africa by mobilizing women as key agents in accelerating the adoption of renewable energy and energy conservation solutions. Katherine is using a micro-consignment model to distribute these products, and in the process has launched a cadre of female micro-entrepreneurs, improved health, reduced household expenses, and made rural women comfortable with technology and the importance of reducing carbon emissions.
Katherine’s key insight is that it is women that influence or make decisions regarding the type of energy solutions to be used for lighting, cooking, and heating at the household level in rural areas. Additionally, she observed that women are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the solutions after they have been installed (for example, dusting solar panels). Thus, it made sense to her to recast this as a gender issue, and focus on empowering women to take the lead role in tackling energy poverty in rural areas. Katherine is targeting women as the exclusive distributors and consumers in this market, thereby shifting market dynamics and putting women at the center of a previously male-dominated space. By leveraging their decision-making and social networking power, Katherine is unlocking the untapped potential for women to drive change in the rural energy space.
Despite significant efforts to rid Africa of its energy poverty, it still remains the world’s most energy poor continent with 74 percent of households still lacking access to electricity. This lack of electricity perpetuates a wide-range of social challenges—increasing demand for, and use of, wood fuel has led to considerable respiratory health problems and environmental degradation.
It is vitally important that governments prioritize the reduction of energy poverty. Governments have implemented various strategies to do this; in Uganda, for example, the government privatized electricity generation to allow investors that are capable of financing expensive power-generation projects to supply the national grid for a fee. Although this approach is effective in leveraging private sector resources to solve an important social need, it is still driven by the need to maximize profits and leads to high tariffs that low-income households cannot afford. A parallel approach by the government has been to invest a significant amount of public funds and international aid money in the construction of additional hydro generation facilities, which increases the amount of power being supplied to the grid. However, the distribution of energy has also been privatized, making this otherwise sound approach ineffective at reaching the poor. With no policies to regulate the billing and distribution practices of private companies, Uganda still has one of the highest power tariffs in the world. This not only marginalizes the poor, but also middle-class income earners.
Civil society and private sector interventions have taken a different approach by introducing and advancing renewable energy solutions such as solar and wind power. This increases access and affordability to low-income communities, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Even though the affordability, environmental and health benefits and the off-grid nature of solar and other energy conservation products are attractive, the rate of adoption of such technologies has been low and the distribution channels used have been ineffective. A strong explanation for this is that marketing and education around energy conservation and renewable energy products has historically been focused on men. Women—who cook on burning wood, take charge of lighting up the house using kerosene lamps and would appreciate the health and economic benefits of such technologies—are left out. Technology is currently seen and accepted as the man’s domain; and women in rural areas are hardly encouraged or expected to get involved. This mindset leaves them in perpetual ignorance. Katherine sees an obvious need to involve women in advancing the use of renewable energy technologies, simply because they are the most affected by the energy choices that take place in their homes.
With the understanding of the potential power of women to drive change in the rural energy space, Katherine put women at the center of her strategy to advance the use of renewable energy solutions in rural areas in Uganda. In order to do so, she knew she would need to give the women the products and a sense of ownership over these products. This ownership would only be developed if the women were invested in the success of Solar Sister. Katherine explored many models that would help her achieve this goal, and eventually settled on a micro-consignment model that would turn the most promising women (as chosen by their communities) into micro-entrepreneurs. These women promote, sell, and provide maintenance services of solar products to other women in exchange for a sales commission.
This would not just be a network of women selling a product, but a motivated movement of women who identify with the mission of Solar Sister, and consider themselves “solar sisters.” A movement of women who understand and appreciate the economic, health and environmental benefits of adopting renewable and energy conservation products; and who value the unique role they can play in accelerating the adoption of such technologies. Katherine estimates that one US$25 solar light can lead to cost savings of up to US$100 a year that would otherwise be spent on a Kerosene lamp. Only women can appreciate such a cost saving—and they get it.
To select her “solar sisters,” Katherine identifies and partners with community groups and women-focused institutions, like the Mother’s Union, to help mobilize grassroots women at the village level. The women are then extensively trained about the products, their benefits and on leadership, money management, saving, and other aspects of entrepreneurship. Those that emerge as the most promising and committed are then inducted into the Solar Sister program, and are given t-shirts, caps and other related materials to complete their identity. When ready, they receive their first consignment (with no advance payment to Solar Sister) and are set off on their Solar Sister journey as proactive influencers and leaders in the energy space across Uganda and Africa’s rural landscape.
Solar Sister has partnered with a range of manufacturers—international and local—to supply its network of consignees with products. These are not just any companies—they have to be conscientious and invested in the quest to rid rural Africa of energy poverty. They must be willing to accept the feedback collected from grassroots users of solar products to inform their product design processes. Katherine is working with some seventeen companies, including Ashoka Fellow Sam Goldman, founder of d.light.
To support the growing network of solar sisters, the organization has a national director at the country level, and supervising regional coordinators, each responsible for supporting a cluster of solar sisters. There are currently 150 solar sisters around Uganda, with expansion into Rwanda already taking hold. Katherine looks forward to expanding all over Africa over the next decade to create the largest single network of women promoting the shift from wood fuel to renewable energy products. She is also interested to expand the product line from lighting systems to cooking, heating, water pumping, and irrigation solutions to give households a holistic energy solution.
Katherine was born, raised and educated in Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. She started a career in finance at a young age, working for an international commodities trading company while still in graduate school. Soon after joining the company as a secretary, Katherine saw a loophole in the way the company had been managing its foreign exchange risk for years—one that exposed it to large foreign exchange related losses. She used her knowledge of international business and partnered with local banks to develop the company’s first forex hedging strategy to safeguard the company from losses during the up and downswings of the forex market.
After graduation, Katherine moved into banking and project finance where she spent most of her career working with various large-scale energy projects. It was during this time that she began to appreciate the value of electricity in development. But during the last quarter of her 20-year career, she witnessed the erosion of the values and principles that had been the foundation of good banking practice in the U.S. for decades. These values were being replaced by greed and self-interest at all levels. Katherine grew increasingly uncomfortable and resigned from her job.
Katherine then got involved as a pro bono executive director in a small philanthropic project, Solar Light for Africa, which did solar installations in schools, village homes, and clinics in Uganda. The organization takes a youth mission trip every year to Uganda where American and Ugandan youth are brought together, trained, and sent to do solar installations on homes, schools, and clinics in remote areas of Uganda. Katherine describes some of the installations they did as life changing—i.e. a clinic that served a population of three million in southeastern Uganda with no water or electricity. The nurses spent two hours at the start of everyday going to the well to fetch water for the facility, a routine that ate into the time to treat patients. Solar Light for Africa installed a solar powered water pump that completely transformed the clinic by saving the nurse’s time and energy and enabling them to focus on treating their patients. Another example was an installation they did at the home of the local pastor and his wife, Rebecca. The challenge was to install a three-light solar system in a four room house with the pastor preferring to have the lights in his office, the living room and the bedroom; while Rebecca preferred the lights to be outside for her security when she returns late from the garden, the living room because that’s where she does the cooking and the chicken house because chickens only eat when they can see their food (meaning they would eat more and be healthier with four more hours of light). Rebecca’s argument won the day and the decision to put one light in the chicken house led to healthier and more productive chickens that generated more income for the couple, which they invested to acquire other farm animals and crops. Watching the transformational power that light had on the clinic, the pastor, his wife and several other families, inspired Katherine to start Solar Sister.