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Solar Sister’s Katherine Lucey on Bringing Light to the Energy Poor

Ugandan tailor Teddy Namirembe used to walk at night from her home, which had no electricity, to a neighboring town to rent a room with light bright enough to work by. For Namirembe, that also meant leaving her children alone while they slept in their beds.

After buying a single solar lamp from Solar Sister, a nonprofit that trains local women to become entrepreneurs through selling solar products and efficient cookstoves, Namirembe’s life dramatically changed. She was able to work from home, pocket the money that had gone to paying for a workspace, and grow her business. With the extra cash, Namirembe could also send her children to school.

“Just giving someone access to light can change lives,” explained Katherine Lucey, founder and CEO of Solar Sister.

Lucey, a former investment banker with expertise in the energy sector, started the U.S.-based nonprofit in 2009 to help eradicate energy poverty. Twenty percent of world’s population lives without access to electricity, according to The World Bank.

Today, Solar Sister operates in three African countries: Uganda and Tanzania, where only 15 percent of people have access to electricity according to the latest data from The World Bank, and Nigeria, where 48 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Solar Sister has trained 850 women entrepreneurs who use an Avon-style distribution and sales model. Through solar sales, the entrepreneurs also help stop the use of kerosene lamps, which are a financial burden to refill and are known to cause fires.

Solar Sister claims that 180,000 people are benefiting from the affordable solar products sold by its entrepreneurs. spoke with Lucey about creating a market-based solution for ending energy poverty, and why women are key to boosting global access to electricity.

Why build a women’s entrepreneur network when targeting energy access for everyone?

140828-solar-sister-2Katherine Lucey: Energy is typically managed by women. Incorporating women as part of the solution is critical in achieving the goal of making sure everybody has access to energy.

Because we are coming in with technology, coming in with a homogenate solution, if you forget who your customer is, we’re not going to achieve our goal. It’s important to be really deliberate about reaching out to women as customers, and also as participants in the solution. Energy does have a gender component to it, and we have to remember that.

What’s it like for women managing household energy in the regions where Solar Sister serves?

KL:They’re the ones that walk to market, fill up a Coca-Cola bottle with kerosene, and pour it into the lamp. They’re the ones who walk for miles to collect wood, to cook, to fire up their dinner stove. If what we are trying to do is disrupt that, and replace it with better and more efficient energy solutions, we need to reach the women and get them to demand these products. You can’t develop a market-based system if you don’t have demand.

Why does Solar Sister use an Avon-style distribution network when selling solar lights and systems?

KL: The products were maybe available downtown in cities, but they weren’t available in the rural areas where they were most needed. There isn’t a sophisticated, already developed distribution system out there.

As well, there is a gap between the women and technology. We needed to introduce this technology in a way that the women were going to be comfortable with, and they would trust.

If their daughter introduces a solar light to them, and buys it for them, and says, “Mom, give this a try because I use it at home” — or their friend does, or their cousin, or their sister does — there is a higher likelihood they are going to try something new, because it’s coming to them from someone they trust.

Because one woman is selling to another woman, she can tell her, “Try this new lamp. I use it at home. It’s brighter. It doesn’t smoke. I’m not coughing so much. My baby doesn’t get burned, I don’t have to pay anything for it once I buy the lamp.”

Solar Sister sells a variety of products that range from a simple solar light for $10 to a full home system that can cost more than $300. What’s the most common item purchased?

KL: Mostly they come in for the smaller systems, from the single light to the light and phone-charging system, which is our biggest seller. We work in very rural places where people don’t have access to electricity, and don’t have the money to invest in a big system.

Solar lamps are something that people can afford. With solar lamps you can tap into the local market, tap into people’s own ability to solve their own problems. It’s a ground-up solution, a grass-roots solution, as opposed to a top-down solution of investing in infrastructure and grid networks and things like that. If you are going to wait for the government, or wait till large corporations get around to investing enough infrastructures to get energy access to everyone, it will be years and years. We have a solution. People can be in charge of solving their own problems right now.

How does the income earned by a Solar Sister entrepreneur impact her life?

KL: There aren’t many other cash-earning opportunities. Most of the women are living in very agricultural areas. Most of the income is made through farming, which means once or twice a year they have crops. They earn their entire year income off that one season, which means they can go months without any cash income. To have something that can earn some money every month, it provides them with stability. It provides them with income to address really important life-changing needs.

solar-sister-studyingWhat we hear from women is that the number one thing the income goes to is their children’s school education. Although schools are often free, you have to pay school fees. The school fees go to everything from uniforms, to books, to teacher fees. School tends to be the biggest cash expense in a family’s household.

Do you use a different leadership skill set when you are working in the U.S. than when you are working in Africa?

KL: It’s all the same. Before I was in Solar Sister I spent many years in banking, and even there it’s about focusing on starting with what you got, right where you are, and then building from there. It’s very problem-solving, very analytical, but tying that into action, or figuring out what the next best step is.

What’s next for Solar Sister?

KL: Our goal is to expand solar sister across sub-Saharan Africa. Every place where we can use this network of women entrepreneurs and provide opportunity to light up communities.

Author: Rachel Barron

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