Lighting Up Women's Lives: Solar Sister
Katherine Lucey asks women how they want to use solar-powered LED lanterns because their answers are different from what men say. For example, she found that a woman named Rebecca wanted to put the light in the chicken room, overruling her husband’s choice.
Chickens eat more with light. Chickens that eat more, lay more eggs. Families with more eggs to sell earn more and have more opportunity. This illustrates how providing access to solar light technology improves lives and creates income generating opportunities for women and girls in Africa.
Lucey is the founder of Solar Sister, an organization that is just rolling out its first woman-to-woman direct-sales distribution system for solar lamps, working in Uganda. Lucey just returned from a trip to the Kapchorwa district of eastern Uganda that “exceeded all of my expectations.”
In one village, two women signed up to be Solar Sisters. Their inventory of 24 lamps—twelve of each kind—quickly sold out. In a smaller village, a woman had sold two lamps by the time Lucey returned to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, texting her to proudly share her sales news.
Solar Sister lamps are long-lasting with approximately 50,000 hours of light-emitting diode (LED) lights. The batteries do not need to be replaced and while guaranteed for a year, they have an expected life of four or five years under good conditions.
Solar Sister’s woman-to-woman direct-sales distribution system is based on women’s natural networks of family, friends and community and brings the solar technology right to the women’s doorstep.
Solar Sister pays up front for the women’s first solar light inventory. With the money the women earn from the sales, they can purchase more lamps. “Solar Sister’s package of support—the initial inventory, set up, and training—costs about USD $2,000 total per village,” Lucey explained.
“Yet a woman has the ability to earn USD $450 per year if she sells her inventory three times. And she can do it like an Avon lady, in her spare time. For a woman in a rural village where there is no cash income opportunity, this is huge!”
Lucey believes that while it is crucial to hear what women have to say, men can join the conversation as well. While she recognizes that men like the “cool technology,” Lucey believes that solar lamps are not about technology, but about the utility of the lamp.
Women will chose to put light in the kitchen instead of the bedroom, so women can see to cook. Another woman chose to put the light in the latrines at the girls’ boarding school to improve healthy habits and safety.
“Like any household appliance, this fits better into the women’s realm,” she said. “It’s women’s responsibility to buy kerosene. What shouldn’t they also be in charge of the solar lantern?”
“Closing the gender gap will continue to be a challenge as well, and creating a space for women to take the lead and get involved requires time,” Lucey said. “In one village, as we were telling the community about the program, the men were seated on one side of me on benches on tree stumps. On the other side, the women were seated on the ground. For me, this created the perfect visual image of where women usually sit when it comes to access to technology."
"There is a gap between them and the technology. They are just outside the circle. Closing that gap is Solar Sister's mission. On that day I got up and joined the women on the ground, I sat with them and talked and let them sample the lights and have the opportunity to ask me questions directly. That is the image of Solar Sister, sisters working together."
Men can be incredibly supportive when they understand the cost savings that solar lamps can bring. In one village, Lucey showed them two styles of lamps: a simple Kiran light that costs about USD $15, and a more expensive USD $45 Nova light that also charges cell phones.
The men quickly embraced the more expensive lamp because 90 percent of men have cell phones that need to be recharged every two or three days. Fifty percent of women also have cell phones and they, too, recognized the long-term savings.
“In these remote villages, one has to travel to a larger city to get a cell phone recharged," Lucy said. "Transportation to that city and the service cost amounts to USD $1.50 per trip. Not having to make two to three trips per week quickly pays for the cost of the $45 Nova light.”
In Uganda, Lucey has learned the importance of a commitment to consistency to ensure that the project will achieve its intended impact. Solar Sister has partnered with Mother’s Union‘s Family Life Program, an organization with a long history of working with villagers, providing them with training to implement life style improvement.
“Solar Sister is able to do what we do because we’ve formed partnerships with an organization that has deep, deep community relationships that have existed for years,” Lucey said. “Our relationship with the Mother’s Union of Uganda brings a level of trust and certainty to Solar Sister that separates us from organizations that fly in and then quickly leave.”
The Mother’s Union introduced a new, more-efficient cook stove with enclosed ovens that use a third of wood that other stoves burn, helping to prevent deforestation. They’ve introduced latrines and outhouses with proper drainage with a place for people to wash their hands. Other projects involve improved gardening with vegetables, small plots for chickens to add eggs to their diet, or the purchase of cows for drinking milk.
Solar Sister’s efforts to replace tadooba kerosene lanterns with solar lights, aligns with the Mother’s Union’s goals on both the health and economic fronts. “With solar, they don’t have to breathe in tadooba toxic fumes. When they look at the black walls of their house, they realize that if the walls are black, the inside of their lungs are black,” Lucey said.
“Economically, it makes sense because within two months, they they'll recover the cost of having to buy kerosene. This immediately frees up 20 percent of their income. Convincing them to think of solar lanterns as an investment and looking beyond ‘just today’ is hard. But the Mother’s Union has the authority to make them think toward the future.”
Lucey says her biggest hurdle thus far is pure logistics, because getting the lamps to rural places where they are most needed is challenging, requiring several handoffs between the distributor in Kampala and the villages. Thus far, the Mother’s Union has navigated this obstacle.
Lucey believes that someday she’ll look back and see her participation in Changemakers and her attendance at that summit as a tipping point for Solar Sister and her efforts to bring light to women in the developing world. Lucey’s early entry in the Changemakers Women | Tools | Technology challenge led to her participation in the Daily Beast's Women in the World Stories and Solutions Summit, where she was "immersed in inspiration."
“The chance to put story in front of smart, savvy, connected women and to see that other people understood was so empowering,” she said.”There was a point when I was telling the story of Rebecca and the chicken room, and the audience broke out in applause. Getting that real response from those women was the moment that I understood that ‘this is going to work and people get it’.”
|[banner-33857:]Katherine Lucey, founder of Solar Sister||29.96 Ko|