Connecting the 1.6 billion people around the world without access to grid electricity, a quarter of the world’s population, is a daunting task. The list of challenges is impressive: lack of infrastructure and financing, political corruption, war and natural disasters to name a few.
However, light is hope – and opportunity, especially in Africa, which has the lowest per capita energy use of any continent. Over 600 million Africans live without electricity, and 70% of those suffering from energy poverty are women and girls. In 11 African countries, more than 90% of the population lives without any power supply. Access to energy is a basic necessity for heat, cooking, powering businesses after the sun goes down and enabling children to study at night.
In the absence of grid electricity people rely on toxic, expensive fuels, such as kerosene for lanterns. They spend up to 40% of their family income on energy that is inefficient, insufficient and hazardous. Breathing kerosene fumes is the equivalent of smoking two packets of cigarettes a day – two-thirds of adult females with lung cancer in the developing nations are non-smokers. Lack of power affects the safety and health of women and girls. Without light, they are at a higher risk of violence as they walk through unlit areas. Maternal healthcare (such as prenatal care and night-time deliveries) suffers in the absence of basic electricity.
Relying on grid electricity is simply not an option, especially for women and girls in the last mile in Africa. The need for clean energy access is immediate and critical to sustainable international development. But there is good news – the solution is simple. My 20-plus years as an investment banker in the energy sector and second career as a social entrepreneur inform the following:
Put women first
Women and girls may be the most affected by the problem of energy poverty but they are also the most effective at forging a solution. They are master networkers and marketers, wise investors and, in most cases, in charge of household purchasing. When given access to clean energy solutions, women choose clean energy – the benefits are clear.
Transformative, market-based opportunity
Access to clean energy solutions isn’t enough. While giving out clean energy technology may solve a short-term need, it leaves out a key element to sustainable development – transformative opportunity. Distributing solar and clean energy technology through a last–mile distribution supply chain not only empowers entire communities with economic opportunity but also it delivers life-saving technology directly to the doorsteps of homes in the last mile.
Target households at grassroots level
The single best way to ensure sustainable energy for all is to target people at the household level and harness their positive experiences to recruit friends, family, and neighbours into the clean-energy revolution. For many sustenance farmers, the homestead is the family business; it’s where people farm and raise livestock. Bringing light into the home powers homes and businesses, and activates extended friend and family networks.
The solution is simple: clean-energy technology. We have an incredible market and social opportunity to leapfrog grid electricity and power every home with safe, affordable and sustainable energy solutions.
To accomplish this we need to concurrently empower women, catalyse transformative economic opportunity and tap into the power of community networks both to boast the benefits of clean-energy technology and distribute life-saving product.
The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June.
Author: Katherine Lucey, Founder and CEO, Solar Sister, USA and Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur
Image: Scouts participate in a Greenpeace workshop in Durban, October 4, 2011. REUTERS/Rogan Ward