Our van climbed higher and higher as we navigated the rolling foothills of Mt. Elgon on the Uganda-Kenya border. Lush greenery surrounded us and plump cows dotted the fields. Although sparse electricity lines hung from some of the houses, there was no light as we approached Kapchorwa district. No light, except in the homes that owned a Solar Sister solar lantern.
Headquartered in the U.S. with an office in Kampala, Uganda, the Solar Sister organization works through a network of Ugandan women to sell a variety of solar-powered products to rural communities. These include everything from the basic d.light solar lanterns to more complex systems from Barefoot Power, which have multiple lights and can charge phones and radios. I traveled to Kapchorwa to see first-hand how this type of technology is helping women progress economically. And I was impressed.
Families buy the lanterns for about $40 (U.S.) – the same amount of money that the average household spends to fuel a traditional kerosene lamp for one month. The solar lanterns not only save families money in the long run, but they are healthier because they don’t emit smoke, and safer to have in the home – after all, parents can leave their children reading by the light without worrying about them getting burned. What’s more, with solar light, families can cook later in the evening and milk their cows earlier in the morning, thereby increasing time for other activities. Shop owners can boost sales by keeping their stores open longer. The lanterns also can provide a new business opportunity: many owners have neighbors pay a small fee to charge their cell phones with the lanterns.
None of this would be possible without “Solar Sister Entrepreneurs” – the group of women who are trained to market and sell the solar lanterns. Entrepreneurs are recruited through their shared circles of friends, which creates a cadre of trusting, accountable and reliable agents. They include women like Lydia and Viola.
Lydia sells solar lanterns out of her shop – a sort of general store carrying everything from cleaning products to electronics. Meanwhile, Viola, a former school teacher, travels door-to-door. They told me that being a Solar Sister Entrepreneur not only has provided them an income – they earn a 10 percent commission from each lantern sold – but it also has boosted their confidence and won them a new level of respect in their community. To me, both women were true entrepreneurs because they were constantly seeking ways to make their businesses more efficient and maximize their sales: Lydia sold cell phone-charging solar lanterns and cell phones as a package deal in her shop. Viola, on the other hand, would get phone numbers of her friends’ contacts and cold call them to tell them they needed to buy a solar lantern. Viola told us that in addition to her other businesses as a farmer and seller of used clothing, she would like to purchase a dairy cow to sell milk. She is now saving her Solar Sister earnings to buy the cow, which she plans to name “Solar.”
What I found most exciting about Solar Sister is that people’s demand for the lanterns seems insatiable. They understand the value of the lanterns and want products that can last longer, have more bulbs and can charge other items, such as refrigerators or televisions. In a country where electricity is meager and unreliable, solar light provides an alternative solution. Solar technology may prove to be a “leap frog” technology, by allowing people in developing countries to bypass traditional electricity grids and instead access renewable, clean solar energy. With solar energy, the possibilities are limitless!