Journeys of Light: When Women Power Meets Green Power
“I am talking of a place…a fertile place, full of rice and wheat fields and ponds in the middle of those fields choked with lotuses and water lilies, and water buffaloes wading through the ponds and chewing on the lotuses and lilies. Those who live in this place call it the Darkness. Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.”
– The White Tiger By Aravind Adiga
By Neha Misra
I grew up in an India of Light, in the heart of urban Delhi with many privileges of a booming middle class brought by liberalization of the Indian economy in the early nineties. In 2005, for the first time, I got to see the India of Darkness up-close. I was working on a project for the Global Network on Energy for Sustainable Development in the Sundarbans region of India, one of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems on Earth, known for the world’s largest mangrove forests. While rich in biodiversity, Sundarbans is also one of the most densely populated and poorest parts of our world, and highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
During my field research, I learned that having something seemingly as simple as a solar light bulb could mean so much to the people of Sundarbans. One story particularly made a deep impact. I learned how women who had solar light could, for the first time in their lives, go to sleep peacefully without worrying about a snake biting them in their mud homes in the thick of night. The presence of solar lights reduces the risk of this hazard. This connection between light and a peaceful sleep (and life itself!) was new to me. The contrast between the lights of Delhi, as I knew it (despite its perennial power cuts), and darkness of Sundarbans could not have been more profound.
Fast forward to late 2009. I was living and working in the midst of the bright lights of America. On the heels of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, I was distraught with the lack of significant progress addressing climate equity and its relation to extreme energy poverty. There are 1.6 billion people in the world without a single light bulb. Four out of five people lacking access to electricity live in rural areas. 70% are women and girls who spend up to 40% of their family income on inefficient and dangerous fuels like kerosene. And according to an IFC report, fuel based lighting is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars annually. Every day, women and children inhale smoke equivalent to two packs of cigarettes due to indoor air pollution. How can we create a bright future if women and girls around the world continue to live a life of darkness, and not one of possibilities?
My thoughts kept going back to Sundarbans. I wanted to be a part of a bottom-up solution. So I became a part of Solar Sister, a start-up social enterprise marrying “woman power” with “green power,” and doing so through market-based and locally driven innovation. Solar Sister combines the breakthrough potential of clean energy technology (like portable solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and, more recently, clean cookstoves) with a women-centric direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in Africa.
Since our small beginnings in 2010 training 10 women in Uganda as Solar Sister entrepreneurs, today Solar Sister has recruited, trained and mentored more than 724 women in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan who have brought the life-transforming benefits of clean energy to over 113,550 Africans.
One Solar Sister at a time, we are bridging the wide rift between those living in light versus those in darkness whom I first saw in Sundarbans. For example, I met with Solar Sister Valentina Tiem from Hydom, Tanzania, a local leader and community health officer responsible for mobilizing women from more than 20 women’s savings groups in her community. Valentina is using income from her Solar Sister business to pay her children’s school fees, while being readily available to assist with child birth, all with her own solar light and charged mobile phone in hand.
Solar Sister is continuing to invest and expand its network of women entrepreneurs while significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and lowering air pollution exposure for countless families across Africa. Some key lessons for us: first, that engaging and empowering women leaders can have a transformational impact on transitioning our world from energy poverty to green prosperity. Second, cutting edge advances in technology, targeted skills training and capital must be matched to ensure that the products reach where they are needed the most. Third, achieving an impact at scale calls for innovative public, private, and people partnerships. This is not just one nation’s or one gender’s issue. It’s a human issue, and we all can do something to share the light.
About the Author: Neha Misra is the Chief Collaboration Officer of Solar Sister. She also serves as a Solar Suitcase Ambassador for We Care Solar, which is bringing solar power to remote maternal health clinics around the world. When not advocating for women’s role in clean tech, Neha is a poet and a contemporary folk artist, connecting the dots between creativity and social innovation for building a sustainable society. Follow her on Twitter: @LightSolar
Neha Misra spoke on the Environmental Protection Agency’s April 29th panel “Women as Climate Leaders: Building Resilience Across Our Communities”. This event was an important part of EPA’s Earth Month celebrations.
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