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And a Woman Said: Let There be (Solar) Light

Monday, Dec. 19, 2011
solar-sisters-light-up-the-world
Coffea arabica bushes on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, a large and solitary volcano in East Africa, yield red-ripe cherries making their way as Fairtrade coffee beans to western markets and major coffeehouses such as Starbucks. Smallholder farmers will soon receive a bonus of cash for their crops. The good news is that the price of coffee this harvest season in Uganda is likely to rise due to heavy rains earlier this year that limited the crop size.
 
There’s little incentive for the farmers to save any of that cash influx, however. Village banks are few and far between; moreover, they charge account maintenance and transaction fees that rapidly sip away the meager income. Moreover, with rampant inflation in Uganda and devaluation of the shilling, it’s a pretty sure bet that their hard-earned money will be worth less tomorrow than it is today. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo describe how the poor save without banks in their recently published Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, often “brick by brick.” The poor want to invest in something that has future value – just like everyone else on the planet.
 
We witnessed this paradigm last week on a visit to Mt. Elgon with the CEO of Solar Sister (GSBI ’11) Katherine Lucey, and her amazing team of women entrepreneurs. “We” included myself; Social Benefit Operations Director Sherrill Dale (for those who don’t know Sherrill, she’s the one who makes our signature Global Social Benefit Incubator program happen); Chair of the Center’s Advisory Board Jeff Miller; and his incredible wife, Karen. We’d arrived on Mt. Elgon after visiting other GSBI alums ToughStuff (GSBI ’09) and KopoKopo (GSBI ’11) in Nairobi, and re:char (GSBI ’10) in Bungoma, about a 10 hour drive from Nairobi across the Great Rift Valley. Crossing into Uganda and reaching our base at Sipi Falls was another day’s journey.
 
Solar Sister is an amazing social enterprise by any standard. Already employing 177 women and affording them economic opportunity through an Avon-style sales model, the team strives to bring “light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in rural Africa.” They are succeeding, and though their goal of scaling to 5,000 sisters in 5 countries within 5 years sounds ambitious, they may well exceed it.
 
Each Solar Sister carries a bag of products matched to different market needs in their sales territories. In the bag are ToughStuff’s affordable, modular solar-powered energy products including lighting, mobile phone chargers, and a D-battery form factor device that powers radios with the flexible solar panel module. These are the top three uses of electricity for the poor, with TVs next on the list. Also in the bag is Angaza Design’s (GSBI ’11) super-bright, sleek solar-powered lantern that lights up a typical single-room home for an average family of 7.
 
The ToughStuff radio-powering device is a big hit; we all like entertainment! And many purchasers of mobile phone chargers create microenterprises that provide their communities more affordable, and sustainable, ways to charge their mobile phones, critical given the information access and services now enabled by mobile technologies.  (The power of mobile is well recognized within Africa with organizations such as iHub in Nairobi fostering mobile innovation. Read more...).
 
Lifeline Energy (GSBI ’04) CEO Kristine Pearson’s excellent blog on the burning issue of kerosene use set the context for the contrast between those who had invested in solar powered lighting and those who had not. At the nearest town’s fuel station, we saw lines of young children filling empty 500 ml plastic bottles with clear kerosene at nearly 3000 shillings per liter, a huge fraction of the average daily income on Mt. Elgon. It wasn’t at all hard to imagine the picture Kristine had painted of an even younger child drinking the kerosene as if it were a beverage. Nor was it difficult to see how the lack of light hindered learning and damaged health.
 
The villagers we visited with Solar Sister had different stories to tell. They had invested in solar lights after receiving a bolus of income – it doesn’t come weekly or biweekly, but seasonally, perhaps after the coffee harvest. They were reaping the economic benefits of not purchasing kerosene every day. Depending on the lighting product, payback can be less than a month, with future savings fueling livelihoods, education, and housing.
 
Lidia, the very first Solar Sister, is a successful entrepreneur in her village. Her husband works for her. We visited her mother in another village and demonstrated the Angaza light to her great delight. She plans to open a store in her village - what a great holiday gift from daughter to mother – light and livelihood!
 
Another family we visited was using the 1700 shillings per day savings to cover school fees for the girls, a very high return investment according to Banerjee and Duflo. A third family was using the savings to expand their home, brick by brick.

Lucey shows how sustainable businesses with significant social impact can be “powered by smart investment in women entrepreneurs.” Applications for the 2012 Global Social Benefit Incubator, our tenth year, are now available for inspired, passionate, and compassionate social entrepreneurs like Lucey and her sisters. They light up all of our lives! 

Tags: energy, GSBI, social entrepreneurs

 


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