East African rural women left behind by solar systems revolution

Ashden CEO Harriet Lamb. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Poverty and gender inequality are limiting the impact of clean energy on rural women in East Africa, new research has shown.

The study by Ashden, an organisation that supports sustainable energy enterprises, found that women largely played second fiddle to men in the ownership, decision making and control of the solar home systems and micro-grids linked to the revolution of clean energy in many rural households.

The survey of 1,260 households in Tanzania's Kagera and Morogoro regions between 2017 and 2019 also shows that most solar companies disproportionately targed men in the marketing of their products. This is despite the fact that women and men in the same household were equally responsible for paying bills and deciding when to top up.

There was also a gap in training women on using their new systems, meaning women sometimes relied on their husband sor children to fix and top up the system.

Where mobile phone ownership was a pre-requisite for buying a solar home system and paying the bills it generated, only 46 percent of women owned a phone – compared to 90 percent of men.


In the poorest region surveyed, Safaricom's #ticker:SCOM M-Pesa account ownership, mostly used for accessing pay-as-you-go solar services like M-Kopa, was found to be 31 percent for women, and 84 percent for men.

Access to solar home systems had also not significantly improved the lives of women, with many still not enjoying free time or de-prioritising their own needs over those of other family members.

Ashden chief executive Harriet Lamb, speaking at the launch of the Clean Cooking Forum in Nairobi Wednesday, warned that the marginalisation of women from the benefits of solar and micro-grid systems was undermining efforts by the East African countries to achieve universal access to sustainable energy.

"Countries aiming for 100 percent energy access must tackle the wider issues that stop women getting the full benefit of clean, modern electricity. Solar energy can have a powerful impact in poor communities, but only if products and services meet people's needs. And even then, it won't transform lives on its own. We're calling on solar companies, politicians and NGOs to really listen to women; whether designing national policy or visiting a rural family to make a sale," Ms Lamb said.