5 Ways Solar Solutions Reduce The Gender Gap in Poor Households
Written by Charity Nyawira on 17 May 2023
For most of the time I lived in rural Western Kenya, I often suffered from an agonising sore throat. Visiting and staying with my friends in the village on normal days or for events like burials, meant joining in what society considers women’s roles — cleaning, fetching water, collecting firewood, and, of course, cooking.
I later came to notice a pattern — A few days after a smoky kitchen episode, my throat would be unbearably painful. I would struggle to talk, breathe, and swallow. My body would get weak and shivery. Fortunately, the symptoms would disappear after a few antibiotic doses. I later learned that a consistent intake of antibacterials was a threat to my immunity, so I dropped the drugs and turned to the good, old remedy — salty water gargles.
Exposure to firewood smoke was ruining my health and, unfortunately, continues to damage the health of many more rural women.
About four million people die globally every year from inhaling polluted indoor air, with adult women having a 50% higher mortality rate than adult men1. But dangerous firewood smoke is only the tip of the energy scarcity iceberg that rural women try to break daily.
Women and girls bear the greater burden of energy scarcity
When there's a lack of affordable and reliable energy, one thing’s for sure: Women and girls suffer more. Thanks to females’ traditional roles like cooking, cleaning, and child care; girls and women bear the greater burden to find resources to meet these needs.
The biggest challenges that women face that widen gender inequality are:
- Time poverty
Long walks to water and firewood are physically demanding and time-consuming chores that almost always fall on females. A study of 24 Sub-saharan countries2 found that females do the bulk of unpaid chores, ranging from 46% in Liberia and over 90% in Ivory Coast. Young girls bear the greater burden of unpaid chores compared to boys, at 62% and 38% respectively.
Sometimes, women have to take several trips to water per day depending on family size and household needs. On getting home, these women must also tick other house chores like cooking and caring for children off their to-do lists. Mothers also have to accompany children who wake up during the night to protect them from bumping into things and reduce the chances of candle or kerosene fires.
Women and girls spend 200 million hours3 daily collecting water according to global stats, precious time that could be spent on income-generating activities.
- Low productivity and low economy
Businesswomen have to close shop as early as 6 pm or 7 pm to save on kerosene costs and escape the insecurity of the night. The lack of a sustainable fuel source also hinders women from pursuing entrepreneurial activities like baking that require affordable fuel.
Low agricultural productivity
Women run the show when it comes to agriculture in most African countries. In Kenya, women represent between 42% and 65% of the agricultural labour force4. In Tanzania, over 80% of economically-active women work in the agricultural sector5.
However, women generally have lower access to resources such as water and finances than men, resulting in significantly lower yields, food insecurity, and financial hardship. In Tanzania, for instance, while men had access to drip irrigation and motor pumps, women used water-hauling buckets for irrigation. In the Upper East Region of Ghana, women lack access to land near the river and labour to dig wells6. With agriculture in most rural areas being mostly rain-fed, climate changes result in drought-related hunger.
- Damage to women's bodies
The rural setting provides little alternative to walking. Most women carry about 20-litre water jars and firewood on their heads or backs, sometimes while also carrying their children. Those with bicycles can carry more water and avoid return trips to the river, but still have to push the heavy, loaded bicycles home.
Carrying heavy loads on the head compresses head and neck discs, causing upper back and hand discomfort and headaches. In a survey, 69% of South African women that carried heavy loads reported spinal pain while 38% reported back pain7.
- Exposure to health hazards from traditional fuels
While cooking with firewood, women often inhale fuel smoke and incompletely burned particulates. The inconsistent heat from these traditional fuels increases smoke exposure. Food preparation especially exposes women to as many as 5 hours of smoke inhalation per day1.
At times, mothers cook while carrying children on their laps or backs, exposing the kids to smoke pollutants. Prolonged stay in such environments exposes women and children to the risk of developing respiratory infections.
In a study of the impact of indoor air pollution on women and children in Trans Nzoia County, 92% of women and 95.4% of children had coughs and about 98% of women reported headaches from using wood or kerosene for cooking8.
- Poor maternal and child health
Pregnant women In remote areas risk pregnancy-related complications without access to life-saving reproductive care9. In extremely remote healthcare facilities plagued by lack of access to power or frequent power outages, nurses tend to pregnant mothers using torches and flashlights10.
Lack of electricity means no vaccinations, wellness services, and treatment for diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis for mothers and children.
5 ways solutions upgrade women’s lives
Access to reliable and affordable off-grid solar energy has become the solution to many of women’s everyday challenges.
Here are 5 ways in which solar energy solves women’s challenges:
1. Reliable solar lighting extends women’s productive hours
Solar lighting helps women keep their businesses open for additional hours and extends their productive hours at home. Children also get a safe environment to study and play after dark. Thanks to solar lighting, women no longer have to accompany children at night to visit the bathroom or fetch things from other rooms in the house.
By adopting solar lanterns, Gloria from Nakuru could extend her business for at least 2 more hours into the evening and make an extra USD 20 to USD 30 in a day.
Thanks to solar lighting and solar street lights installed in Matungu Center in Kakamega County in 202111, some businesswomen kept open as late as 11 pm, increasing their income. Grocery shop owners also sold more, registering minimal losses.
D.light, one of Lendahand's borrowers, has helped create 25 billion productive hours through its clean and affordable solar lighting products. d.light has sold over 25 million solar light and power products in 62 countries, improving the lives of more than 140 million people, especially low-income earners.
2. Solar water pumping allows easy access to water for daily use, irrigation, and economic activities
Enabling access to resources such as water and financing for women helps achieve Sustainable Development Goal #5 of gender equality and women empowerment.
Solar water pumps give women access to water for daily use and farming all year round, helping them generate more income. These pumps offer greater reliability and lower costs over time compared to electric or diesel-powered pumps.
Access to water also helps women's businesses like eateries, salons, and grocery shops deliver their services with ease, leading to higher incomes.
Simusolar and Future Pump, solar product companies that Lendahand has funded in the past, are examples of companies making solar water pumps accessible to rural dwellers. Thanks to Tanzanian solar company Simusolar12, Tanzanian women acquired solar power pumps on credit, reducing the time and labour they spent on farming.
Acquiring a solar pump from Future Pump helped Hakima, a Kenyan from Maseno and mum of four, water her tree seedlings more often, leading to better yields. Better yields helped her expand her business, hitting the one million profit mark.
Lendahand’s borrower, African Energy, provides solar pumping solutions to smallholder farmers through wholesale partners, helping bring water closer to women. African Energy operates in more than 20 countries in Africa.
3. Clean solar cooking saves women firewood gathering time and prevents smoke pollution
Using solar energy for cooking means that women no longer have to waste time collecting firewood or endure toxic smoke while cooking.
According to Solar Cookers International (SCI)13, Kenya could save over 2 billion dollars annually in health and environmental costs, if people using traditional fuel turned to solar cooking a quarter of the time.
Solar cooking drives up economic activities among women as well, helping them create a livelihood for themselves. Thanks to access to solar ovens, a group of women in the rural village of Msumarini in Kilifi County ran a thriving bakery14 after ditching the costly and toxic wood and charcoal fuel. The women also used solar energy to process natural coconut oil. With earnings from the cake-making business, these women started other businesses like clothes selling and poultry rearing, diversifying their earnings.
4. Solar energy for health facilities improves healthcare among women and children
Proper maternal care is critical for the survival of mother and child. Access to efficient energy ensures that survival. Some of the energy needs for pregnant mothers include proper lighting, refrigeration of medicines, and supply of clean and hot water.
Solar innovations can act as main or backup energy sources in areas experiencing high maternal and newborn mortality.
The introduction of solar-powered freezers, for instance, has reduced child and maternal deaths in remote areas of Makueni County. Hospitals located far from the main grid can store much-needed medicines and vaccines for longer. This has increased access to vaccinations for mothers and children to as high as 95%, up from lower than 25% in some hospitals15.
5. Electric transportation helps women shave off hours on unpaid chores
Solar-powered vehicles are becoming the solution to costly, fuel-powered vehicles for rural dwellers.
For instance, solar-powered tricycles are freeing rural women in Zimbabwe from the physical burden of carrying water and firewood on their heads and backs. Women use these tricycles to run daily errands, saving time. Women also earn more income from their farm produce since they can access far-away markets with tricycles. There have also been fewer home births since e- tricycles provide cheap and easy transport for pregnant mothers. Charging these tricycles at a solar-powered station only costs between USD0.50 and USD116.
Developing countries are going solar to save on costs and protect the environment from harmful emissions, and Lendahand has not left them behind. Our borrower company, Roam Electric, has introduced solar-powered motorcycles and public transit vehicles in Kenya. Roam promises lower operational costs of 70% and 50% more income for people using these vehicles to generate income, rivaling the high operational costs of fuel-run vehicles.
Roam’s partnership with M-KOPA, one of the largest lending fintechs, helps people access financing to own electric vehicles17. Access to credit opportunities increases the adoption of e-motorcycles. In rural areas, e-vehicles can provide an affordable form of transportation.
Lendahand solar projects help close the gender gap
The provision of energy should take a gender lens approach, considering how such projects tackle women's challenges like access to water, better lighting for increased productivity, clean cooking energy, and proper maternal care.
Lendahand is keen on gender lens investing as we seek to help achieve the Number#5 SDG goal of gender equality. Our borrower companies like d.light and African Energy provide solar energy solutions that can directly help to improve the livelihoods of women. Keep an eye on our projects page to invest in projects impacting women’s lives.
1. World Health Organization - 2. Plos One - 3. Council on Foreign Relations - 4. Servir Global - 5. Ifad.org - 6. Science Direct - 7. NPR - 8. Research Gate - 9. Think Global - 10. Energy 4 Impact - 11. Business Daily - 12. Power Africa - 13. SCI - 14. Reuters - 15. Relief Web - 16. Reuters - 17. Africa Weekly