How women are reaping benefits from Africa’s solar revolution

    Workers on Solar Reserve's Jasper PV plant in the South Africa's Northern Cape.
    Workers on SolarReserve's Jasper PV plant in the South Africa's Northern Cape.

    For girls in Berta Massawe’s Tanzanian village of Kibosho, every day was a race against the clock — or, more accurately, against the sun.

    When it was dark in this village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, it was dark. There were no streetlights or headlights to break up the night. Work and study were impossible except by candle or kerosene lamp — when they were available. If thieves came to steal livestock, and they did, there was little a family could do to stop them.

    Boys like Massawe’s two brothers had chores to do, too, but they usually involved moving their families’ goats and cows from one pasture to the next and feeding them. They were finished before the sun went down and had more hours to study. Ritha Tarimo, director of M-Power Academy in Arusha, Tanzania, said it’s a common story.

    “It is really a struggle, especially for female children,” said Tarimo, who grew up in much the same kind of Kilimanjaro town herself before moving to the city as an adolescent. “Because they have to really help with the house chores. So by the time they finish, it is 9 at night and it’s hard to sit down to study.”

    Renewable energy deployment in Africa is still very new, and it’s still a story told more in anecdotes than statistics. More than 600 million Africans — or 60 percent of people on the continent — still have no access to electricity. In countries like Massawe’s Tanzania, that number climbs to 80 percent or higher.

    In areas that remain underserved, the gender implications are clear. The World Bank says 70 percent of those suffering from energy poverty are women and girls, who experts say are less likely to migrate to urban centers — where electricity is more available — in search of work.

    But those who work in Africa see grid-connected as well as mini- and off-grid solar beginning to penetrate into new areas of rural Africa, where women and girls spend a greater share of their time. Solar is a particularly good fit, they say, because the resource is abundant in Africa and because it does not require the expansion of transmission infrastructure that would be needed to support larger fossil-fuels-based facilities.

    “This means that people who live way off the grid and will probably not in their lifetime see that wire go over their roof are able to immediately today get access to electricity that opens up this transformation for them,” said Katherine Lucey, co-founder of the social enterprise Solar Sister. She said access to power can be particularly transformative for women.

    “It’s women who manage the energy in the household, it’s women who walk the miles to fetch the wood for cooking, it’s women who go to market to buy the kerosene to use at night for cooking,” she said.

    For girls like Massawe, having even a single light bulb in the house means they can study after dark. Social life doesn’t have to end when the sun goes down, and women can start small businesses that require refrigeration or evening work.

    The new industry is also an opportunity for women to work outside the home.