Clean Energy Powers Empowerment

Those of us living in comfortable hyper-convenience rarely flick on a light switch and consider the power behind it. Not just the Watts and Amps, but the social and economic power too.  

Around 1.2billion people are without access to electricity worldwide, 95% of which are in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia, with 80% of those living in rural communities. This lack of energy has perpetuated poverty throughout these regions, stifling their ability to develop for centuries while other continents developed around them (oftentimes at their expense).

There are three pillars to extreme poverty; lack of money; lack of time; and lack of energy. Providing access to clean power counters all 3. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), increased literacy and economic growth are inextricably linked to access to electricity; whereas gender inequality and unsustainable activity hinders a nation from achieving its full potential. Recognising that climate change affects women disproportionately and that 70% of the said 1.2billion people without electricity are women, sustainable development very much depends on gender equality. By acknowledging the interconnected aspects of sustainable development, the UNSDG has spurred action across the globe towards a fairer, cleaner and more hospitable future for all.

A great example of this action is the work carried out by the charity Solar Sister. Over 600million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack the energy they need, suppressing education, business and independence. Led by women, the charity provides solar installations and clean cookstoves to rural African off-grid communities in addition to investing in local women, giving them the means and support to economically empower themselves via clean energy businesses. This enables women to become more prominent within their community, simultaneously taking control of their own life choices whilst bringing prosperity and stability to the area. These women can then become ‘solar entrepreneurs’ themselves, introducing clean energy to others, enriching the cycle of positive, sustainable growth.

Solar lighting academically empowers women and children too by extending study time after dark, with those helped by Solar Sister reporting a noticeable rise in academic performance. As an added bonus, electric lighting introduced to outdoor/public spaces can be a deterrent to criminal activity.

Additionally, sustainable development also has benefits pertaining to women’s health. People trapped by energy poverty are forced into using traditional biomass fuels (wood, charcoal & dung) for cooking and lighting, the majority of which is gathered by women and children. Fumes from using these fuels have been linked to almost 4 million premature deaths per year worldwide (3 times more annual deaths than those caused by Malaria). The introduction of clean cookstoves greatly reduces, if not eliminates, this toxic domestic pollution. This also means the time usually spent out gathering such fuels (approx. 20 hours a week), which increases women and children’s risk to gender-based crime, can now be spent pursuing academic or economic opportunities.

With their ingenuity and insight into solar technology and rural communities, these women have provided solar energy for over 1.4million people, bringing all the secondary benefits to their communities along with it.

Sustainable development on this trajectory has the potential to further improve food and health security through electric water pumps, irrigation systems and refrigeration of food and medicines too.

Solar Sister’s model is just one of many examples demonstrating the net-positive feedback of women’s empowerment. Climate change and extreme poverty are the greatest humanitarian crises we face as a species; adequate global investment, support and implementation of strategies like this are a sure-fire way to alleviate both.  

Article by Thomas Phillips