I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Katherine Lucey, founder of Solar Sister, and Eva Walusimbi, one of the first Solar Sister sales associates, at the Women in the World 2011: Stories and Solutions summit hosted by Newsweek and The Daily Beast in New York from March 10-12. After our interview, Eva participated in the Women. Tools. Technology: A Global Leapfrog panel to talk about her experience with Solar Sister.
In many rural regions in developing countries, once the sun goes down families and communities spend the remainder of the day in darkness, lit only by candles or kerosene lamps, which are unhealthy, unsafe and expensive. Some simply spend the night in the dark. As an energy executive, Katherine Lucey participated in many large-scale implementations to expand the energy network in developing countries, but as she worked, she noticed that many individual rural residents were not being served. The technology (solar lamps) were available, but there was no distribution network in place. In 2009, she started Solar Sister, a network of women representatives who sell solar lighting to their friends and families and encourage other women to become sellers as well, in an Avon-type women’s business model.
Lucey explained that after she completed the pilot program for Solar Sister in 2009, she entered the idea in the Women, Tools, Technology Challenge supported by Ashoka Changemakers and ExxonMobil’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative. The Solar Sister initiative was one of the programs identified through the Challenge that received additional funding from ExxonMobil. Lucey said, “We had just proved that our idea would work when we were one of the winners of that challenge. The support we received from ExxonMobil has allowed Solar Sister to go from a bright idea to a reality.”
Everyone Can Use the Sun’s Energy
Eva Walusimbi believes that solar lighting is the answer to many problems for her fellow residents. Replacing kerosene and candles eliminates a heavy source of harmful smoke in the home and a serious risk of fire. Although existing electricity grids can be unpredictable, the sun is one wealth of energy that all residents have equal access to for free, so harnessing solar power can save families money and even provide a source of income.
The catch? Walusimbi says that getting people to invest in the initial price of the lamp at first is the toughest obstacle. Most families buy kerosene as they have the funds, spending about $2 a week. The price of a lamp averages around $15 dollars, so families can save up to $85 the first year, and the total price of fuel in subsequent years. But since most families have little money saved, it is a substantial investment for many. Eva beamed as she told me how one family who made the investment in a solar lamp was later able to use the extra funds to buy utensils for the first time. Most families report using their savings for school fees for their children.
Free light after dark extends the work day. Traditionally, girls help with chores around the house after school, while boys do their homework. By the time girls are finished and ready to study, often it is already dark. Girls either do their homework by kerosene lamp light, breathing in fumes and consuming the family’s supply of kerosene in order to study, or simply choose not to do their homework at all. Solar light allows girls to do their homework and women to finish other household tasks after dark without additional cost to the family.
In addition to saving on fuel and improving air quality, some solar lamps have plugs for charging cell phones. Many residents rely on cell phones as their primary form of communication. Some entrepreneurial lamp owners have turned their $15 investment into a form of income by charging friends and neighbors to charge their cell phones when the primary electrical grid is down or if they don’t have electricity at all. Making 50 cents a day on a consistent basis can be more valuable to a family than banking on a single yearly crop that could make $100.
Many of Walusimbi’s friends and neighbors are farmers and rely on the rainy season to grow their crops, but she told me that this year they are experiencing a drought, so there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about income. The other Solar Sisters are thrilled to have income to contribute to their households to offset this reliance on crops and weather. Walusimbi and Lucey derive a lot of satisfaction watching the other sisters build their confidence and feel pride in their accomplishments. Each success breeds more excitement about the venture.
Walusimbi herself is happy to be bringing in additional income to help her family. “I see myself differently,” she said. Spreading light has a personal meaning for Walusimbi as well. She gave her daughter one of the lamps that charges cell phones, and now she feel secure knowing that her daughter, who attends the university 200 miles away, has light to study by, and can call her every day.
Starting a Business Without Loans
Lucey explains that along with all the other powerful things that Solar Sister does, it also allows women to start a business without loans. With ExxonMobil’s support, Solar Sister can give women a “business in a bag.” The initial investment equals about $500, and gives women training, inventory and support. After the initial expense, the businesses are self-sustaining. Future inventory is given to the selling sisters on a microconsignment basis, where they don’t pay for it until they sell it.
Lucey marvels at the creativity some of the women have shown. She believes they just needed an opportunity to become businesswomen. Some found innovative ways to spread the word and bring light to the far corners of their region. Enthusiasm propels them – the sisters know they are really helping their friends and neighbors, so they feel really good about their new business.
Solar Sister is currently solidifying its model in Uganda, but Lucey plans to expand across other sub-Sahara countries. She also wants to offer more household appliances like solar radios (which are very important for staying informed), cookstoves and water filters.
Lucey is most pleased by the strong, women-based selling model Solar Sister has fostered. She believes that women everywhere want to be given the chance to be businesswomen and household contributors. “It’s that connection that makes this not just some project or charity, but makes it really a business that I understand, and you understand, and we all have the same goals of women having empowerment, women having the ability to care for themselves and provide for their families financially. It’s that connection that makes it so powerful, and that’s why we (she indicates Walusimbi) connect.”
With this new source of light, Ugandan residents can now work and study by a clean-burning light that emits no smoke to harm their health or pollute the air. The work day can be extended, allowing families to finish needed chores and tasks. Families can power their cell phones and communicate. Most importantly, solar power is available, affordable and infinitely renewable.