Families are seizing the power of clean, sustainable energy.
Solar products such as lights and phone chargers mean that even those with little money can enjoy the benefits of electricity — from internet access to greater income-earning opportunities. Kenya aims at 100 per cent energy access by 2022.
Recent progress can make us feel that a world of limitless energy for everyone is just around the corner.
A revolution that will solve all social problems, from education to women’s ‘double burden’ — pressure to look after the home while also earning money.
Yet, we cannot hide from an obvious truth: new technology will not transform communities on its own. To unlock its potential, we must confront bigger questions of justice and inequality.
And we must be honest about the impact of energy coming to villages for the first time.
Our new research on energy access, conducted over two years, underlines this.
Hundreds of women recently connected to clean energy told us their earning power had been boosted and they could now work, study and relax in the evening.
But we also found that the full benefits are not reaching everyone and the arrival of new energy technology in a home risks shifting power from women to men.
The companies that sell solar home systems often benefit from government and NGO funding, so they have a responsibility to not ignore, let alone worsen, gender divides.
Our research was carried out in Tanzania, but carries powerful lessons for Kenya’s ambitious energy access plans.
In the communities we visited, buying or gathering polluting fuels such charcoal and firewood is usually done by women and any payment for these fuels made with their cash.
However, buying and running solar energy systems is often seen as a man’s responsibility. Even the sellers are more likely to train male customers on how to fix their system.
Household decision-making around buying such systems is highly complicated, with women contributing in a range of ways.
Most of the time, however, and even after discussion, men have the final say on buying a system.
Bank and other payment accounts are almost always in the man’s name — even if both partners are equally responsible for finding money to pay the bills.
Inequalities are one reason for this. In the poorest region that we visited, only 60 per cent of the women owned a mobile phone and just four per cent had a bank account — compared to 90 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively, for men.
We cannot expect clean energy to benefit everyone unless women and men have a strong voice in how it is bought and used.
The women were positive about being able to watch television, charge a phone (if they owned one) or enjoying light at night.
However, the significant labour-saving benefits mainly reached wealthier women — those who could afford to power energy-hungry appliances rather than just a few light bulbs.
While access to energy is often touted as creating earning opportunities for women, many interviewees said concerns about price and reliability had stopped them from opening or expanding a business.
We must tackle this major roadblock holding back women — and men — from improving their lives through renewable energy.
So, what could businesses do? First, they must ensure they understand their women customers’ needs. All the sales agents our interviewees met were men.
While every woman’s experience is different, including women on sales teams might help firms truly serve all their customers.
Companies often sell their products at the market, a place where men are most likely to be passing by.
Enterprises could actively sell to men and women by visiting people in their homes, where they would get the chance to understand the family’s needs.
Companies have a strong incentive to do this. We know that when men buy a new system without talking to their partner, there is a higher chance the family will default on payments.
Energy firms could also think of teaming up with enterprises offering sustainable products such as non-polluting cook stoves, which would have a positive impact on women’s lives.
Critically, experts and energy companies should stop over-claiming the benefits access to energy can bring.
We must acknowledge how the wider problems of poverty and sexism still hold women back. But these problems cannot excuse the lack of progress.
Rather, we should confront them with action from energy enterprises, governments, NGOs, the wider business community and others, too.
Our research shows just how complex an issue this is. Achieving real change is never as simple as flicking a switch.
Ms Lamb is the CEO of Ashden. [email protected]