When world leaders gather in Brazil this week for the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will highlight the global initiative to achieve “Sustainable Energy for All.” The needs are great: One in five people on the planet still lacks access to modern electricity. This energy poverty disproportinately affects the world’s poorest, many of whom are women. Giving women access to energy technologies can help move them out of poverty and grow economies.
Here’s what that looks like: A solar powered lamp enables a shop owner in Uganda to keep her business open later in the evening and bring in more sales. A foot-pedaled water pump not only eases a Ghanaian woman farmer’s physical burden, but also significantly increases her crop yields, giving her more to sell at market. A clean energy cookstove saves a Tanzanian mother time in preparing meals for her family and allows her to bake breads that she can sell at a local market.
Too often, however, women who utilize such technologies are the exception, not the rule in developing countries. The reality is that most technological innovations do not reach the women who could most benefit because their needs and interests are not considered in the development or distribution of technologies. Poor women also face numerous financial and social barriers to accessing technology. But these barriers are not insurmountable.
A recent report by ICRW highlighted a few initiatives working to bring technologies to women and promote their economic advancement in Africa and Asia. Thanks to these programs, women are buying agricultural and energy technologies like solar lamps, water pumps and cookstoves; advising developers on how to better design technology; marketing technology to their networks; and reaping rewards of more time, more income and more status in their communities. While challenges remain, ICRW found some promising practices that can inform future efforts to replicate similar activities elsewhere in the world.
In Tanzania, we visited KickStart, which focuses on developing and distributing affordable, easy-to-operate irrigation pumps to the poor. Almost 70 percent of its users in Tanzania are women. And the pumps are increasing net incomes by almost ten-fold across all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where KickStart operates. It uses SMS text messages to communicate directly with women and has customized a new, lighter irrigation pump to accommodate their needs. To date, KickStart has sold nearly 50,000 pumps in Tanzania.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, the organization Solar Sister promotes solar powered light and energy. It provides women not just a technology that they need, but an income-earning opportunity in distributing products. Just like Avon make-up sales, a network of women sell solar products to their friends and families and encourage other women to do the same. It’s a win-win situation for women and their families: Solar Sister provides women products, training and marketing support. Women create their own “green” micro-enterprises. And those businesses support their families and provide their communities a vital resource in the absence of grid electrification. To date, 147 women have joined the Solar Sister network, many of them doubling their household income.
These technology initiatives provide a snapshot of the tremendous opportunity to reach the often invisible, untapped economic market of women, who comprise the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs and business owners in developing countries, according to a 2010 study. The discussions in Rio this week must recognize that investments in and by women are critical to achieve truly sustainable development. It’s time to give women the technology tools they need to achieve the “future we want.”