Bringing Solar To Africa One Woman At A Time

For Katherine Lucey, the lack of electricity in many parts of the developing world is not just an economic issue, it is a gender issue. A former investment banker who specialized in financing large-scale power plants, Lucey is the founder and CEO of Solar Sister, a nonprofit that uses a market-based approach to provide solar power to communities in sub-Saharan Africa through a network of women entrepreneurs.

Access to energy is critical to alleviating poverty in Africa, and women must be at the heart of any solution, says Lucey, since they are the family’s “energy managers,” responsible for cooking and heating needs. They may walk miles to collect wood or go to market to purchase charcoal or kerosene, an expensive energy source with severe health and environmental consequences.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Lucey explains how Solar Sister’s operations rely on selling inexpensive, off-the-grid solar energy systems to households to power lamps and recharge cell phones. Since 2010, Solar Sister has created a network of 401 businesswomen in three countries that have provided electricity to 54,000 people. Lucey says the model can be rapidly expanded and can transform lives. “If we’re going to scale up the solution and really have an impact,” says Lucey, “we’ve got to find a way to tap into market resources and let people in their own communities solve their own problems.”

Yale Environment 360: You were an investment banker specializing in the energy sector. What motivated you to become involved in the issue of “energy poverty”?

Katherine Lucey: I was in the energy sector in investment banking for many years and at that level got to see how fundamentally important energy is for advancement at the country level. When I left banking, I got involved with an organization that was doing philanthropic work on rural access to energy through solar renewable energies in Uganda. I got to see at the household level that the same thing is true. You really can’t rise up above subsistence living and achieve prosperity if you don’t have access to energy. And that’s what really drove me to found Solar Sister and to begin this journey of providing clean energy access through a network of women entrepreneurs.

Eva Walusimbi, in blue, meets with some of Solar Sister's sales people. Katherine Lucey, the founder and CEO of Solar Sister, says the organization now uses more than 400 women entrepreneurs to sell the group's solar products. Women must be at the heart of any solution to the lack of electricity in the developing world, says Lucey, since they are the family’s “energy managers,” responsible for cooking and heating needs. (image via Solar Sister/Yale Environment 360)

Eva Walusimbi, in blue, meets with some of Solar Sister’s sales people. Katherine Lucey, the founder and CEO of Solar Sister, says the organization now uses more than 400 women entrepreneurs to sell the group’s solar products. Women must be at the heart of any solution to the lack of electricity in the developing world, says Lucey, since they are the family’s “energy managers,” responsible for cooking and heating needs. (image via Solar Sister/Yale Environment 360)

e360: I understand that the nonprofit that you were working with was putting solar panels on schools and hospitals, which sounds like a worthy endeavor. But you decided to go another route.

Lucey: The organization I was working with is called Solar Life for Africa, and it’s still in existence. It’s a wonderful organization that provides solar electrification for schools, clinics, and village homes. What I saw with that work was both how transformative it is for people to have access to energy, but I also saw the limitations of trying to address what is a global problem that affects a quarter of the world’s population that doesn’t have access to energy through a purely philanthropic model. There’s not enough philanthropy in the world to solve that problem. And so if we’re going to scale up the solution and really have an impact we’ve got to find a way to tap into market resources and let people in their own communities solve their own problems, rather than waiting around for somebody else to come solve it for them.

e360: You say that energy poverty is a gender issue. How so?

Lucey: One of the insights I had while working in rural Africa is that at the household level women are really the managers of energy. They are the ones who walk to market to buy kerosene to pour into their kerosene lamps. They walk miles to collect wood or purchase charcoal. If what we want to do is disrupt that decision process and have the women make a cleaner, safer, more economical choice — to use renewable energy instead of toxic kerosene or burning wood or charcoal — we have to reach the women. So our program reaches out to women right where they are at their household with energy access through this network of women entrepreneurs.

e360: Could you talk about the negative impacts of burning kerosene both on an environmental level and just on a home level?

Lucey: We’re working in rural Africa, particularly in rural Uganda where our program started. Something like 90 percent of the community uses kerosene for lighting. They don’t have access to grid electricity and they’re burning kerosene in small lamps that are not a nice beautiful camping lamp, but they actually look more like a tuna fish can with a wick stuck in it. It’s an open flame. You pour the kerosene in at a small hole at the top and then you light it and burn it.

It’s incredibly expensive — people spend anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of their household income just for kerosene, just for light. It’s unhealthy. Studies have been done recently that show it’s something like smoking two packs of cigarettes per day to be inhaling the fumes from these kerosene lamps. It’s terrible for the environment. Again, studies show that the carbon that comes off of this type of burning has four times more negative impact than previously thought and so the carbon emissions of what is a seemingly small burn are actually very, very negative for the environment. When you replace that with solar, it is cleaner, safer, and less expensive. It’s really free energy. All you have to pay for is the mechanism to turn that free energy into useful lighting.

e360: Tell me about the products that Solar Sister is involved with.

Lucey: We work with a variety of different manufacturers. We are not ourselves manufacturers and by doing that we are able to offer a portfolio of products that’s really best in class and gives our customers full choice as to what they want. So some customers will probably start off with just a very simple lamp, something that is at the lowest price point. And then we have products that offer both light- and phone-charging capabilities. Something like 75 percent of the population has cell phones and only 10 percent of the population has access to electricity, so there’s a big gap right there.

We also have larger systems which are plug-and-play systems. It’s the battery, it’s the solar panel, it’s all the wires you need and all the lights you need to set up a small home system. Maybe you have a three-light system or a seven-light system for your home and you can also run a radio off it, charge up your cell phones, maybe run a small fan.

e360: Your organization uses a direct marketing model to get solar lighting into the hands of these rural women. Local sales women start off with a business in a bag. So tell me what I would find in that bag.

Lucey: We describe ourselves sometimes as the Avon model, using women directly selling to their communities. We recruit, train, and support women and provide them with access to products that have been fully vetted. We provide them access to the working capital financing that they need to get their business started and that’s an important part because most of the women would not otherwise be able to initiate a business. They just don’t have the capital to do that. So everything that goes into getting a business going is what we call the business in the bag.

When they first start up they would have a sample bag of products that they’re buying. And then they are paid for that once they sell their products. They have cash coming in the door and that’s when they pay for it. So that’s how there’s working capital financing in it. And in that bag are a variety of different lamps, cell phone chargers and different products that we carry. They’re able to go out into the market and find out which one of those products is suitable for their market, and what inventory they want to carry, very specifically driven by their own customer base.

e360: Does it take a while for the sales women to make a profit then from their commissions?

Lucey: No, so they’re profitable from day one, from their very first sale they’re making a margin, which goes to them. We appreciate that some women may only want to do this at a small level, but also appreciate that if there is a woman who really seeks this opportunity and wants to grow with it, then we want to invest in that success and really help her grow to as much as she can.

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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