A guest post from the Efficiency for Access Coalition

Off-grid appliances boost gender-positive ‘productive uses’ of energy


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The #AppliancesEmpower campaign, run by the Efficiency for Access Coalition, is strengthening global links between energy access, gender equality and social inclusion. Guest author Yasemin Erboy Ruff says a new approach could change the lives of women and girls.

Revisiting the gender-energy nexus through a productive use

The concept of the ‘productive use’ of energy — activities
that use energy to improve income and welfare — is rising exponentially as an
area of interest in the distributed energy sector. Addressing energy poverty
from a productive use angle not only enhances the ability of energy access
activities to achieve scale and sustainability, but also increases the
likelihood that their positive benefits will spill over to other Sustainable Development Goals. If
productive uses of energy are properly harnessed and universal access to energy
(SDG 7: clean energy) translates to new or increased socioeconomic benefits,
then other SDGs related to economic development (e.g. SDG 1: no poverty; SDG 8:
decent work and economic growth) or fundamental rights (e.g. SDG2: zero hunger;
SDG6: clean water and sanitation) can be fully met.

When we hear the phrase ‘energy for productive use’, most
people immediately associate the concept with agricultural technologies, such
as milling or water pumping, or industrial activities, like welding or
infrastructure development. However, household appliances can also be
transformative from an income generation perspective, enabling
micro-enterprises to attract more customers and increase revenues. Our recent
article with Programme Partner, Power for All, makes the case for a more
inclusive definition of ‘income-generating appliances’ that includes fans,
refrigerators, and other household appliances.

Regardless of scope or definition, it is clear that energy
and productive use interventions have, to date, not taken gender differentials
explicitly into account. This status quo is likely to deliver unequal impact
outcomes: Men typically own more businesses (71% of enterprises in Tanzania are
male-owned) and operate in a wider range of more energy-intensive activities
such as construction and manufacturing (male-owned enterprises spend three
times as much on electricity than women-owned counterparts in rural Tanzania),
according to our campaign partner, ENERGIA.

To complicate things further, women in many developing
countries are less likely to be employed in the formal economy, and often work
in enterprises with lower energy demands, such as tailoring or food
preparation. Finally, men typically employ other men in the businesses they
run, whereas women employ women, thus perpetuating the gender divide for
productive use applications in the absence of purposeful intervention.

A gendered perspective on the socio-economic benefits of
off-grid appliances

Improving access to off-grid appliances has broader impacts
on gender equality than increased economic opportunities. Solar water pumps and
mills, for example, can also reduce time spent on household and farm chores
alike, and the drudgery associated with traditionally female-led activities.
This can include anything from being able to easily draw clean water for
cooking, cleaning, and irrigation purposes mechanically rather than by hand, to
being able to process a harvest automatically rather than having to sort and
process grains manually. Similarly, household refrigerators can help keep
prepared food, produce and dairy products cold, meaning not only that more
items can be kept at the right temperature to unlock more sales and less waste,
but also that women do not need to shop for and cook food for their families
every day, opening up more of their time for other activities. In addition,
televisions and mobile phones — appliances not traditionally considered under
the productive use umbrella — can serve as a conduit for previously
unavailable national, regional, and global information and perspectives.
Expanded access to cable television is associated with positive changes across
school enrolment, literacy, family planning, financial decisions, and health —
all with significant relevance for positive change across corresponding SDGs.

The perception of many energy access practitioners and
off-grid appliance distributors is supportive of the theory that the benefits
accrued from the uptake of such technologies will differ between genders. In a
recent Efficiency for Access survey, respondents were asked to rank the
socioeconomic impacts of household appliances by the gender of the end-user.
While demand for LED room lighting, mobile phone charging, and refrigeration
showed little deviation, household appliances that support labour-intensive
activities, such as hand power tools, clothes washers, sewing machines, and
electric cookstoves demonstrated significant differences between genders, and
all fell within prescribed gender norms.

Despite this variation, the relationship between access to
income-generating appliances and its impact on shifting gender norms and
socioeconomic outcomes remains largely unexplored. Productive use appliances
are likely not reaching the full potential for women because the sector’s
current focus is on larger, more industrial solutions whose incumbents have
traditionally excluded women. Compounding this issue, there are indicators that
women are also being left out of the loop for technology-enabled tools such as digital
or mobile-based services targeting agriculture assistance. All these
trickle-down effects add up to making the technology barrier even harder to
overcome for women, and are a disservice to making progress towards SDG 10:
reduced inequalities.

How can we move the narrative forward?

Most early movers in the distributed energy sector are still
struggling to demonstrate the commercial viability of increasingly complex
technologies in nascent and disorganised appliance markets, which provides a
perfect opportunity to build in gender-sensitive approaches from the get-go. A
more realistic understanding of the current state of play across the ‘productive use’ spectrum will help companies develop more inclusive services,
and eventually prove their impact potential. Blending consumer-facing design
considerations and awareness-raising will, in turn, unlock more demand as well
as financing structures, and therefore more support for proving the viability
of and achieving true scale for productive use appliances.

Gender mainstreaming approaches for off-grid appliances that
take into account both women’s involvement and empowerment — from design to
distribution and use — can expand the productive customer base for entire
communities. Prioritising more traditionally ‘gendered’ appliances like irons,
sewing machines, and cooking solutions and supporting direct exploration of
gender-positive business models can serve as a good starting point for the

More gender-focused consumer research is the key: to parse
out gendered usage patterns and preferences; unearth best practices in
technology design, business models, and supportive activities; and pilot
targeted design interventions to enable more women to participate in and
benefit from scaling productive use appliances.

We will be raising a number of concrete suggestions to the
abovementioned activities throughout the course of our #AppliancesEmpower
campaign, which will run through March 2020. In collaboration with our campaign
partners, you can look forward to posts and announcements across connections
with health; disability inclusion; inclusive business models; emerging gender
mainstreaming research and scoping; and lessons learned from positive
interventions. Follow us on Medium, Twitter, and LinkedIn; to stay up to date
on campaign developments, lend your voice in upcoming Twitter chats and
webinars, and to pledge your commitment towards gender mainstreaming energy
access efforts.

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