Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

viola.jpgIt’s been noted more than once by people in foreign assistance enterprises that, in developing nations, if you help a man start a business, you enrich a man. If you help a woman start a business, you enrich a village. Because women tend to think at a community level. A woman who gets an economic opportunity often starts looking at what can be done to get wells for clean drinking water or to build better schools. At the very least, a woman achieving the ability to earn outside the home and affect her family’s well-being serves as an inspiration to other women in the community who might not realize there are options for them outside the traditional strictures.

If you’ve been reading along, you know the last week of our Africa trip has been spent with a delegation from a program through Santa Clara University that offers businesses expertise and courses for Social Entrepreneurs in developing countries, and matches them with Silicon Valley businesspeople as mentors. Andy is one of those mentors and on the Advisory Board. In our travels this week, one of the Social Entrepreneurs we’ve spent the most time with is Solar Sister. The ostensible goal of Solar Sister is to get affordable, quality solar lamps into homes that are now dependent on dangerous, dirty fuels such as kerosene or paraffin. But the mission is so much more than lighting. Solar Sister distributes using an Avon-like network of local women who can sell — with credibility and trust — especially into rural and underserved areas. One thing we quickly learned is that a light is not just a light in a country that has virtually no grid outside of one or two cities. A better light means children can study longer at night. An isolated home might be safer with an outside light. A big chunk of a typical rural household budget goes into lighting and cooking fuel. So using kerosene and paraffin means fewer funds are available for school fees, livestock and other purchases. In addition, kerosene, paraffin and charcoal come with a high non-monetary acquisition cost. Women often walk miles into the nearest town every week to carry back a seven day supply of fuel. If the distance is too far or they aren’t strong enough, they may have to pay for transportation to and from that town center. Even “free” fuel sources such as wood from nearby forests come with a large time requirement — not to mention an ecological cost as deforestation is becoming a larger problem as populations grow.

We were privileged to visit a number of homes in isolated villages to talk to customers of Solar Sister about how solar lamps have affected their lives.

When most talked about benefits, they focussed right on the kids: more school supplies, more study hours, more money for food staples.

Most focused right on the kids: more study hours, more money for food staples, school supplies and fees.

In talking of her life before solar, this shy minister's wife told a harrowing tale of falling asleep while nursing her baby and having a candle fall on the couch and nearly cause a serious fire.

In talking of her life before solar, this shy minister’s wife told a harrowing tale of falling asleep while nursing her baby and having a candle fall on the couch and nearly cause a serious fire.

Most of Solar Sister’s lamps also include cell phone chargers. Some customers are buying multi-charger units and setting up small businesses as charging stations for their neighbors’ phones. Especially in isolated villages, cell phones are often the only infrastructure. It’s typical for people to walk several miles a few times a week to get their phones charged at a charging business in their closest main town. The convenience of charging at a neighbor’s house assures that they can always keep a charged phone, yet save the significant time investment that used to entail.

In fact, it was amazing how detailed and specific customers — especially women — were about the savings benefits of solar versus kerosene. Although, at typically $25 to $40 dollars, depending on model, a solar light unit is a big ticket item, it usually pays for itself in as little as three months. After that break-even point, it’s all savings. Customers told us some of the things they’d bought instead of expensive fuels: a more secure front door, and especially income-generating things such as a goat or a flock of chickens.

If you’ll pardon the pun, Solar Sister is one of the bright shining success stories to go through the mentoring program. The latest stats from their website have them in three countries, having created 521 entrepreneurs (mostly women), and allowing 84,379 people so far to benefit from solar technology. But here’s where you have be careful how you define “success”. In Silicon Valley terms, of course, success means more profit and more market share. But a Social Enterprise also has “mission” which Solar Sister founder, Catherine Lucy, defines in her program’s case as “eradicating energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity”. Sometimes business and mission coincide. On occasion, one has to give ground to the other. A perfect example of this dynamic is the difference between two Solar Sister sales events we observed. The first was a “special promotion” some Solar Sister staff members hosted at the store of one of the original Solar Sister distributors. Immediately, it became clear that, in a town and in a storefront, the dynamic was completely different. The buyers were mostly men, they gravitated to the big ticket, higher powered units that many of them talked about wanting to use to run TVs. While a TV in a village home might be a good thing from an information perspective, many of those plans for TVs were probably long term wishes. Contrast that with the sales to women, conducted by the woman-to-woman sales model. With those customers, even the purchase of one light was leading, within months, to tangible improvements in the family’s household budget, earning ability and quality of life. Then there are the intangible “profits”. What does it do to a village girl’s perceptions to see a Solar Sister businesswoman talking confidently and knowledgeably about technology? Or the Solar Sister staff technician, who is a woman, coming to her village to teach a repair seminar? So while concentrating on the towns and selling the higher-ticket units to men might lead to bigger profits faster, the Solar Sister mission is better supported by expanding the network of saleswomen who sell in more remote, less serviced village areas.

Now there’s a lesson for Silicon Valley.

Sisterhood is powerful! Power to the Sisters, right on!

Sisterhood is powerful! Power to the Sisters, right on!

 Note: If you want to donate to Solar Sisters, you can do so through their website.

Want to read more about the program Andy’s involved with? It’s the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI).

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Author: Lisa

Although I'd like to think of myself as a rootin', tootin', wine-makin' cowgirl, I currently only live in Sonoma part-time. Mostly I'm on freeways between San Jose, San Francisco and Sonoma. With two yapping terriers in crates behind me. We try to enjoy all three places and points in between. Which will explain why my post subjects are all over the map.

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2 Comments

  1. Uganda is a very conservative, religious country — mostly Christian (Catholic and more recently Pentacostal), with a sizeable Muslim population. In this particular area, certain tribes still practice female circumcision — although a group of Tribal Elders is trying to move for change. They’ve reduced FGM by 40%, but that means 60% of girls still undergo it. So you can see how amazing, empowering and needed Solar Sister’s example can be.

  2. You nailed the issue right on the head. Seeing these women take charge of their own futures, especially in a land that can be perceived as limiting to women, is so powerful! Again, how to use these ideas and initiatives in the United States to help communities improve and strengthen?

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