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Sister Power

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Saturday, June 25th, 2016
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A social business in Africa brings solar light to remote communities while empowering women entrepreneurs

At a small roadside trading center in rural Luweero, about 65 kilometers from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Sarah Serunjogi gathers a group of women from four tiny shops selling flour, beans and soap. As they sit on a bench, she takes two small plastic lights from her bag and begins her sales pitch.

Serunjogi, a spirited and cheerful mother of five, is a Solar Sister, one of more than 1,300 part-time entrepreneurs who travel door to door, demonstrating and selling portable solar-powered lamps across Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria.

The people of Luweero live with no access to grid electricity, like 90 percent of Ugandans and an estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide. They rely on biomass such as wood or charcoal for cooking, and on kerosene for light. Kerosene lamps offer barely enough light for reading while exposing families to unhealthy fumes and the risk of fire and burns. The World Health Organization cites a growing body of evidence linking use of kerosene with a range of adverse health effects, including chronic pulmonary disease. One of Serunjogi’s customers, Brenda Kawuma, vividly remembers the day she thought her three-year-old daughter would die after drinking from a water bottle filled with paraffin for the kerosene lamp. “It was terrible,” she said. “I had no option but to run away from that.”

But people living far from commercial centers cannot easily go to stores that sell solar lanterns. They might not even know such lanterns exist until somebody like Serunjogi shows up on their doorstep. Solar Sister follows the Avon lady model of direct sales and door-to-door distribution. The entrepreneurs, primarily women, sell within their communities, using their personal networks to build trust in their products, and also helping to recruit and train other Solar Sister entrepreneurs. They work as much or as little as they like, netting the difference between the wholesale and retail prices of what they sell.

As Solar Sister’s best-selling entrepreneur in Uganda, Serunjogi has racked up over 25 million Ugandan shillings (about US$7,500) in sales in less than four years. After her husband died in 2009, her income from her part-time job with the local diocese wasn’t enough to cover her family’s needs. The extra income from Solar Sister means she can now contribute toward her grandchildren’s education.

Solar Sister was founded in Washington, DC in 2009, by Katherine Lucey, a former investment banker in the energy sector who left Wall Street to devote more time to her family and philanthropy. At first she got involved with a small foundation that provided rural electrification, traveling to Uganda and confirming what she had seen in the energy business: “that no country can move into the modern era without sustainable access to energy…that productivity, that well-being, all of that is affected, if you don’t have access to energy. It just puts the brakes on development at every level.”

Lucey also quickly realized that women are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, especially in rural areas, where they spend a great deal of time gathering firewood and doing chores inside the home. Studies indicate that rural electrification releases women from domestic duties and motivates them to work outside the home. And when women earn more, their families benefit most. Reports from the OECD and the World Bank show that higher earnings for women translate into greater investment in children’s education, health and nutrition, leading to long-term economic growth.

So Lucey created Solar Sister with two aims: eradicating energy poverty and creating economic opportunities for women. She says it’s this dual approach that makes the company unique. Solar Sister entrepreneurs have sold more than 80,000 lamps across the three countries where they operate, and also sell clean cook stoves. But as solar technology falls in price and improves in quality, there’s competition on the market. While Solar Sister asks for a one-time payment, some competitors allow customers to pay in installments—an attractive option in a market where few have the ability to save, even if Solar Sister’s price is cheaper in the long run and its products come with a two-year warranty.

And though Solar Sister’s goal is to be commercially sustainable, the company is still 70 percent financed through philanthropy. Lucey said this is partially due to the tough balance between profitability and reaching into the “last mile” of rural areas where the technology is needed most.

In the end, she said, giving women a role in the future of energy will have dividends far beyond the bottom line: “It’s not going to show up on our balance sheet or our income statement, but it shows up in our ultimate mission, which is to make sure that everyone has access to energy. And when you’re talking about everyone, you mean women also.”

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