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Solar Sister wants to light up rural Africa

Rugged, intuitive to use, affordable solar lamps that women can sell door-to-door change lives.

By Esha ChhabraDowser.org / July 1, 2011

Startup group Solar Sister is a 'business in a bag' working in several African countries to bring affordable lighting to families.

Courtesy of Dowser.org

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One-year-old start up Solar Sister is using cosmetics company AVON's model to distribute solar energy in Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda. To learn more about the “business in a bag” model that's giving rural African women an income and a renewable light source, Dowser spoke to Katherine Lucey, Solar Sister's founder.

What was the problem you saw and how could you fill that need in a unique way?

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Lucey: Problem: Gender-based technology gap in rural Africa. When I was doing work for a nonprofit that was installing solar energy in schools, clinics, and rural homes, the maintenance of the project, the adaptation of the solar wasn’t very good because we’d return a year later and find that 50 percent of the systems were not functioning. It was a very high fail rate.

In rural Uganda, where 95 percent of the homes don’t have electricity, solar technology is a distributable energy source; so, it’s a very good solution to clean rural energy or actually, rural energy period. It just happens to be clean as well.

Also, the technology that we were using – the solar panel, the PVC, etc., was very "techie" and we were in homes where there was no technology. So, the women didn’t have a comfort zone with the technology that we were bringing into their home.

We realized that the women are responsible for the solar panel – it’s a household utility. So, there’s a gender gap there for technology. And that’s not specific to Uganda. It’s an issue here at home as well when you look at the gender ratio in science and math. It leans towards men.

That’s how I started thinking about how we can close that gap.

And the solution?

The AVON model for solar energy.

At the time that I was developing this idea, the design of the solar lamps became micro-solar. These are designed specifically for BoP [Base of the Pyramid] application. They’re rugged, very intuitive to use, affordable, and readily available. And it’s not as "techie;" it’s really just a light. So, the gap bridged. All of a sudden it’s a lot easier for women to use. You stick it out during the day; you bring it in at night; you flip a switch and you have light to read, cook, and even a source to charge your phone.

It’s also 1/10th the cost of a home solar system so it’s within the price point of these homes. They can range from $15 to $50, and when you’re already paying $2 a week for kerosene, it’s an investment that will pay off in a few months because you’ll no longer have to pay for an energy source. They use those extra funds then for better food, health care, and schooling fees.

And the price continues to drop as the technology evolves.

Did Solar Sisters pair with a micro-finance institution (MFI) to provide women entrepreneurs the initial capital needed for this "business in a bag" model?

No. Rather Solar Sister uses a "micro consignment" model versus micro franchise. These women don’t have to pay the franchise cost up front and we don’t work with MFIs.

For example, we had a lady, Viola, who signed up to be an entrepreneur. But she had just had a baby so was not able to sell immediately. If she had taken out a loan then she would have had to start paying back within a week or so. That would have been difficult in her situation and put her collateral at risk – her home.

Rather, we want them to sell and our intent is not to make money off the interest rates. So, we extend a loan ourselves by providing them the inventory.

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