In the lead up to International Women's Day, we wanted to showcase women supporting other women. One female lead organisation that does this so well is Solar Sister, a social enterprise that invests in female entrepreneurship to provide clean energy for sub-Saharan communities running largely off the grid. 1MW intern Madeleine Achenza spoke with their founder and CEO, Katherine Lucey, whose lightbulb moment has given African women the opportunity to power their homes and communities.
Madeleine: So I'll just get straight to it, why did you start Solar Sister?
Katherine: I started Solar Sister because I was working in Uganda, installing solar in schools and clinics for a small family foundation and while doing that, I saw just how incredibly impactful it is at the household level to have access to clean energy.
These are people who are living in rural areas that didn't have access to energy. They were using kerosene for lights. And just simply having a clean, reliable, safe and affordable light in their home, changed everything. And it was around that time that the solar lighting solar lamps started.
So the solution of having solar lamps in rural areas was available, but it wasn't happening. And so I just kind of thought about like, "Why aren't more people benefiting from this great technology? And it really came down to an issue of access, and people knowing about the product and being able to have it in their communities. And so I started Solar Sister just as an answer to a problem. How do we solve this? Why doesn't somebody solve this? Why isn't somebody working on this? Well maybe, I am the somebody.
Madeleine: That's where some of the best ideas come from right?
Katherine: Yeah, exactly. I'm thinking, why am I waiting for somebody else? It's MY problem. It's the problem in front of ME. One of the things that I've come to realise is that each one of us has the ability to do something, and that something presents itself. And you solve the problem in front of you. It will find you.
Madeleine: I've read some of the stories of women that have worked with and are positively impacted by Solar Sister. At the core, they really just saw a problem and they wanted to be a part of the solution, right?
Katherine: Yeah, so when Solar Sister first started, it really did start as, you know, seeing the issue of energy access in rural areas. And the solution was looking at the fact that it was a household problem. And it's women who manage industry at the household. Therefore, having women entrepreneurs sell the products to other women was like the best way to kind of bridge this gap.
In the process, we created this business opportunity for the women entrepreneurs and when we looked at that we're like, oh, that is actually another impact, you know, not only are we providing clean energy for communities, but actually the method that we're doing, which is through women's entrepreneurship is itself an impact. And I think over the years we've come to realise more and more how significant that impact is that women have an opportunity - the ripple effect of that is just incredible.
Madeleine: Yeah, exactly. I guess that kind of brings me to my next question which is, what do you think is the biggest difference in a female lead business? Like you said, they think differently, they work differently and they invest in different things?
Katherine: When we looked at distributing clean energy products in rural communities, we thought: who is the customer? - And the customer was the woman. She runs the household energy needs, and she's the one who's walking to the market to buy a Coke bottle full of kerosene, she's the one who walking for two hours to collect firewood.
If they are our customers, then having a network of women be the entrepreneurs is the most effective way to reach them. I mean, Solar Sister: it's baked into our name. We are founded by women, for women, about women.
A very strong reason for that is because we're solving a household problem, which is a lack of access to energy and we're introducing a modern technology solution to it. There is this gender divide when it comes to technology. And so in order to bridge that gender divide, we had to make Solar Sister be really intentional and deliberate about including women in the solution. Because if you don't do that, then they unintentionally get overlooked.
Madeleine: And this isn't a problem that's specific to just these communities, that is seen all across the world, right?
Katherine: Yeah, so I'm based in the US and I see the number of women that are not in technology, even in Silicon Valley. It affects all of us. If the women aren't there to be part of the design and the understanding of how technology is going to be used in our lives, then the technology doesn't get designed properly.
I can think of one situation where male engineers had invested all of this time and energy and many years of studies and research into developing cook stoves for these communities. When they finally took the cookstove out to the households, and said here, we have this wonderful efficient cookstove. The women look at it, and they're like, here in Nigeria, when we cook, we use this huge stick and we bash the cassava until it's pulp. If we try to bash the cassava, on that little cookstove, it will break. So that cookstove is worthless to us. If you don't check in with who your users are, then you're not designing something useful.
Madeleine: The way you refer to them as entrepreneurs, it puts the power in their hands. They're the ones who are finding the problems in their own communities and realising that Solar Sister provides a solution for that, and they as an individual woman realise they can use that to provide a service to their community.
Katherine: And that's, that's absolutely true they truly are entrepreneurs. Solar Sister is a business opportunity. We provide training, we provide support, we provide this belonging to a network of other entrepreneurs. But we're not giving away a product. We're just supporting them.
Some women look at that and say, 'no, thank you, that's not for me' and then other women look at that, and you can see their eyes light up and they see the value of that, I see the value of that because I can see myself making a living where I can support my family.
And, and the women tend to be real social entrepreneurs like in the real sense of it because they're building a business, they're earning income, and they're reinvesting those funds.
They're really driven to make sure that every single family in this community is using clean solar light. And that never again will there be any house fire caused by a knocked over kerosene lamp, and somebody loses their baby. Because that happened to their neighbor, and they never want that to happen again. And you see that they're really driven by this very strong motivation of community well being.
Madeleine: Why are women such great change makers? Why do we need them to be leading the way for greater social change?
Katherine: Well, nothing is going to change if you leave out half the population. Often in those rural communities, the men have left to go into the cities to find work. It's the women who populate this place - they're making the decisions, they're running the household, they are teaching our next generation. So they are the key to change. Someone said, you teach a woman and you teach a family and you teach a nation.