Two of the most persistent and arguably most stubborn growth barriers for developing countries are reliable access to modern energy and women’s empowerment. Electrification leads to income generation opportunities, access to information and services, and improved farming and food processing value chains, to name just a few benefits. Empowering women is not only a key indicator of development and a goal in its own right but also a potential driver of further change. This has been impressively demonstrated by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning micro-finance institution Grameen Bank, which concentrates on women as change agents. Its founder, Mohammad Yunus, discovered that loans to women had excellent repayment rates and that they made more strategic choices about money than men. Women, he found, invested into long-term community benefits—education, livestock, small farming equipment and better energy practices—effectively working to break the cycle of poverty. Households benefitted from the additional income provided by women and the fact that they contributed financially lifted their status and self-esteem, thereby – slowly – lifting their role in society.

Today, across the developing world, there are numerous government programs, international initiatives, non-profit organizations and social businesses engaged in creating income opportunities for women. Equally, there are many initiatives working towards universal electrification. Combining these efforts could have an exponential effect on development. However, this is still rarely done. At TFE Consulting, we have recently had the opportunity to learn from some pioneering organizations bringing women empowerment and electrification together.

One of them is Frontier Markets. The social business operates in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where over 2 million households have no access to electricity. It is a woman-led company with an all-female board, employing over 250 women, called “Solar Sahelis” (solar friends), working in the villages to market green energy and energy-efficient products, educate potential users about the benefits of solar energy, and collect market information. “Our experience shows that contrary to prevailing stereotypes, women are the highest adopters of technological solutions, particularly solar. They’re passionate about earning an income, and they have a clear insight into their communities’ needs,” says Ajaita Shah, the founder, and CEO.

This resourcefulness is not limited to India. In Africa, Solar Sisters has a similar mission to create a “deliberately woman-centered direct sales network to bring the breakthrough potential of clean energy technology to even the most remote communities in rural Africa.” Currently, 2,500 “Solar Sisters” work across Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria to sell solar lanterns and clean cookstoves. Livelyhoods, a nonprofit in Kenya, founded by Tania Laden and Maria Springer, trains unemployed youth and women in slums to sell clean-burning stoves, solar lamps, LED lights and even reusable sanitary products. In Nepal, Empower Generation seeds and supports women-led solar enterprises.

These ventures directly address a central pain point in development: women and children are particularly affected by the problems associated with lack of electricity. They suffer heavily from the indoor air pollution associated with the burning of wood or kerosene. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that most of the estimated 4 million annual deaths that result from it are women and children. Women are also a household’s primary fuel and water gatherers – an activity which often takes them most of their day. As they do so, they might fall victim to sexual harassment and rape. Solar energy and efficient cookstoves, thus, not only provide power, but also safety, health and time.

There are, of course, bumps in the road. There were instances in India, where women actively sabotaged electrification initiatives because they valued their time gathering wood and water as social time with friends, away from the house. More often, however, the difficulty lies in overcoming psychological gender barriers in both men and women to get a women-centric electrification model going. In a research project commissioned by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), many women reported being beaten for attending focus groups if they had not completed all the household work. [5]

As the primary users of the energy-efficient cookstoves and solar energy systems, these women are also ideally suited to market and improve these products. Involving women systematically in the business side of renewable enterprises entering the developing markets can, therefore, contribute significantly to the success of these ventures. In addition, there is some evidence that women are more likely to buy from other women, expanding the sales potential for green energy companies [6]. In fact, Muhammad Yunus found that much of his success with repayment came from having weekly peer group discussions where the women would leave their family compounds and meet together to share information and tips on successful business practices.1 Having women form support communities where they can speak freely with each other also amplifies their confidence and motivation, as the Solar Sahelis and Solar Sisters have experienced as well.

With several innovative companies leading the way, it makes sense for other electrification companies to consider their example. The global donor and impact investing community should focus its attention on supporting these women-led electrification models in their journey towards becoming scalable and investable business models that ultimately become attractive commercial investments.