By Harriet Lamb, Ashden CEO
Around the world, families are seizing the power of clean,
sustainable energy. Solar products such as lights and phone chargers mean that even
families with little money can enjoy the benefits of electricity – from internet
access to greater income-earning opportunities.
These breakthroughs can make us feel that a world of
limitless energy for everyone is just around the corner. A revolution that will
solve all social problems, from education to women’s ‘double burden’ – pressure
to look after the home while also earning money.
But we cannot hide from an obvious truth – new technology
will not transform communities on its own. To unlock its potential, we must
confront bigger questions of justice and inequality. And we must be honest
about the impact of energy coming to villages for the first time.
Our new research on energy access in rural Tanzania,
conducted over two years, underlines this. Hundreds of women recently connected
to clean energy told us their earning power had been boosted, and that they could
now work, study and relax later in the evening.
But we also found the full benefits are not reaching
everyone, and that the arrival of new energy technology in a home risks
shifting power from women to men. The companies that sell solar home systems
often benefit from government and NGO funding so they have a responsibility to
make sure they are not ignoring, let alone worsening, gender divides.
In the communities we visited, buying or gathering polluting
fuels such charcoal and firewood is usually done by women, and any payment for these
fuels are made with their cash. But buying and running solar energy systems is often
seen a man’s responsibility. Sellers are
also more likely to train male customers in how to fix their system if it
Household decision-making around buying such systems is highly
complicated, with women contributing in a range of ways. But, most of the time,
even after discussion, men have the final say on buying a system. Bank and
other payment accounts are almost always in the man’s name – even if both
partners are equally responsible for finding money to pay the bills.
Existing inequalities are one reason for this. that in the
poorest region we visited, only 60% of women owned a mobile phone, and just 4%
had a bank account – compared to 90% and 34% for men. We cannot expect clean
energy to benefit everyone unless women and men have a strong voice in how it
is bought and used.
The women we met were positive about being able to watch
television, charge a phone (if they owned one) or enjoy light at night. But the
significant labour-saving benefits mainly reached wealthier women – those who
could afford to power energy-hungry appliances, rather than just a few
While access to energy is often touted as creating earning opportunities
to earn, many interviewees said concerns about price and reliability had
stopped them opening or expanding a business. We must tackle this major
roadblock holding back women – and men – from improving their lives through
So, what could businesses do? First, they must make sure
they truly understand the needs of women customers. All of the sales agents our
interviewees had met were men. While every woman’s experience is different, including
women on sales teams might help companies truly serve all of their customers.
Companies often sell their products at the market, a place where
men are most likely to be passing by. Enterprises could actively sell to men
and women by visiting people in their homes, where they would get the chance to
understand the family’s needs. Companies have a strong incentive to do this –
we know that when men buy a new system without talking to their partner, there
is a higher chance the family will default on payments.
Energy companies could also consider teaming up with
enterprises offering sustainable products such as non-polluting cookstoves,
that would impact positively on women’s lives.
Critically, experts and energy companies should stop
over-claiming for the benefits access to energy can bring. We must acknowledge
how the wider problems of poverty and sexism still hold women back. But these
problems cannot excuse the lack of progress. Rather, we should confront them with
action from energy enterprises, governments, NGOs, the wider business community
and others too.
Our research shows just how complex an issue this is. Achieving
real change is never as simple as flicking a switch.
- Ashden conducted 607 interviews in the Kagera and Morogoro regions of Tanzania from March 2017 to July 2019. Download the full report here. This article first appeared in The Nation and The Daily Standard.