The role of gender empowerment in community development

The sun just started rising in Bulegeni, Uganda. It’s early in the morning, 6AM, and Caroline Nafuna is getting up to prepare breakfast for her husband and their 8 children before they leave home for the day. She starts by making a fire in a clay-built cooking place adjacent to her household, trying to keep the smoke away from her face as she blows into the kindling. Caroline does this every day without exception, and accepts it as part of her routine. Unfortunately this ordinary chore has heavy, dangerous long-term implications for her wellbeing, even though she might not realise it right now.

Caroline Nafuna, preparing a meal

At African Clean Energy (ACE), we specialise in manufacturing and distributing clean, off-grid energy products in rural, difficult-to-reach areas of the developing world. In 5 years of doing so we learned invaluable lessons about the energy needs of off-grid households, but we learned even more about the energy burden placed on the women living in these households.

Traditionally in rural Africa, women are responsible for managing domestic chores and this is not only time consuming, but can also be detrimental to a woman’s health. Cooking on open fire or rudimentary stoves exposes women to toxic smoke, the effect being known as household air pollution (HAP). Over 4.3 million people die every year from illnesses attributable to HAP, more than AIDS and Malaria combined.

Women are also the ones who usually source cooking and lighting fuels, which is a time-consuming task (up to 6h a day in most remote regions) and prevents them from focusing on more productive activities like business or education. A World Bank study on gender, time and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa found that men work on average 5.5h a day, mostly in the labor market, and even though women are largely excluded from the labor market, they work 8h a day to keep up with domestic chores. The same study found that if boys from 13 to 15 years old are in school, households lose about 25 hours of work per week. For girls of the same age, they lose about 37 hours of work.

ACE customer cooking without smoke

Energy access, particularly thermal energy access (for cooking & heating) is very much a gender issue. We cannot empower rural African women to get formal jobs, invest in their education, and capture more opportunities for their family if they are expected to source fuel & cook on open fire every day. Our proprietary product, the ACE 1 energy system, helps address this problem. It cooks using 50–85% less fuel, it can burn any type of biomass (woodfuels, agri-waste, animal dung etc) and it minimises smoke emissions mitigate the risks associated with HAP. Our data in Lesotho shows that 84% of buying customers are women, which clearly indicates that they value the benefits of clean, efficient cooking more than men.

On the bright side, studies show that modern access to energy is clearly linked to poverty alleviation. This is because cooking on open fire is inefficient, and incremental purchases of kerosene and batteries for electricity carry a high premium. Based on data collected with 7,000 ACE 1 users in Lesotho, we see that our customers save on average 83% on monthly energy expenses, and 95% have stopped buying kerosene. And this is simply because the product enables them to cook with less fuel, and uses solar electricity for phone charging and powering a LED lamp. Caroline Nafuna’s family spends UGX21,000 (~$6) every week on firewood and charcoal for cooking, and an additional UGX500 (¢15) every day on kerosene for lighting. In a household with an informal income of $2–4-a-day, this energy expenditure is putting immense pressure on daily finances. By addressing energy inefficiency with a product like the ACE 1, we can enable rural African families to eliminate redundant energy expenses and increase their household disposable income, which for some could be the key to lifting them above the extreme poverty line.

Our dream is to live in a world in which women do not have to sacrifice their own health and personal development for the most basic needs for their family. Our goal is to reach and provide an ACE 1 to every woman in Sub-Saharan Africa who is currently cooking on open fire, constrained to executing time-consuming, unproductive activities everyday just to be able to put food on the table. With the ACE 1, we want to empower women to cook easier, dream more, and increase their financial resilience to be able to invest in their future.

Caroline Nafuna with her daughters in front of their home

About the publishers:

African Clean Energy (ACE) is a B-corp certified social enterprise specialised in manufacturing and distributing clean, off-grid energy products in rural, difficult-to-reach areas of the developing world. ACE’s flagship factory is in Lesotho and they distribute direct-to-consumer in Lesotho, Cambodia and Uganda.

ACE is a proud partner of Signify Foundation. With support from Signify Foundation, we were able to grow our capacity on the ground to reach more rural consumers with our products. Signify Foundation collaborated with us on carrying out awareness campaigns, helping us train our staff in Lesotho to provide them with comprehensive knowledge about solar energy and the role that clean energy can play in climate change mitigation. This is very valuable to all our employees, particularly our sales representatives who can now share their learnings with the local communities to which they travel every week. This way, we ensure that renewable energy awareness and knowledge will effectively reach the most isolated corners of Lesotho. Another exciting project we are currently implementing with Signify Foundation is the setup of ‘solar libraries’ in Cambodia and Lesotho, which allow school children to check out solar lamps at the end of the day to take home and study. Having Signify Foundation as a partner enables us to take part in such stakeholder-centric projects. We can assume greater risks, think bigger, and make sure we are maximising the benefits that we bring to the local communities in which we operate.

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