Two years ago, I attended a global energy access conference hosted by reputable organizations. I was dismayed to find that over the 3 days of panels, mostly on entrepreneurship and clean energy, that 12 of the 120 speakers of the event, or 10%, were women. The audience, however, was about 50% women. Worse, the 12 women that were selected as speakers typically held the role of moderator (hence facilitating, not actively discussing) or were put on panels focused on gender. When I brought these points up to the organizer, he became defensive and responded with, “Well we tried! Women kept dropping out!” and other common refrains as to why there aren’t equality on panels.
However, he did have a point. Part of the reason it’s difficult to find women energy entrepreneurs to speak on panels is because there simply aren’t that many. And yet gender has become a very big theme in the energy access world. The problem is huge: 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity, with another 2.7 billion lacking access to modern forms of cooking. The common refrain is that we need to empower women across the value chain to adequately provide access to energy. And yet the vast majority of women’s economic empowerment programs are focused on empowering women at the bottom of the value chain – as both consumers and micro-entrepreneurs.
I asked one solar company in Ghana whether they hired women in sales roles. The CEO responded, “That’s ticking a UN development box. I hire the best people for the job.” Given that this CEO probably does not interact with women on his level very often, his experience has created a distorted perspective on gender equality. Unfortunately, these experiences are common to men and women in executive positions globally.
Micro-entrepreneurs are one of the most common jobs in developing countries, almost 93% of Small to Medium businesses are micro-enterprises. Glorified hustlers, these are jobs in the informal economy – unregistered, provide only subsistence earnings, and are focused mostly in sales. For example, a woman makes samosas from home and sells them out of her window to her neighbors. A man fixes bicycles and repairs them for people in the community. The income is sporadic, unreliable, and completely dependent on the needs and wealth of their neighbors. Furthermore, micro-entrepreneurs have options to get access to financing: microfinance itself, which is the only financing industry that targets investing in women.
With the proliferation of gender and energy programs focused solely on creating women energy micro-entrepreneurs, we are damaging the narrative that women can be successful energy entrepreneurs worthy of the same kinds of investment men energy entrepreneurs obtain. After all, what makes more sense as Professor Aneel Karnani argued, lending $200 to each of 50 women to sell solar and stoves out of their homes or to lend $100,000 to one entrepreneurial women founder who can hire 50 women to work in her company? Commercial financial institutions still consider women’s economic empowerment a way of checking a UN development goal box, only suitable for microfinance institutions only.
Another problem with this narrative is that the stories on women’s economic empowerment are also focused on the micro-entrepreneurs, such as a woman who sells solar lanterns in her village and can now afford to pay for her kids’ school fees. While these are noble initiatives, it’s still a harmful narrative for women’s entrepreneurship.
The organization I founded, ENVenture, seed invests in rural Ugandan small to medium energy businesses. ENVenture is the first investor in Juliet Gibbs’s company CARES. Her background is in Microfinance and energy access, having completed in Master’s degree in Italy, with an impressive resume with experience as a Grameen Bank Fellow in Bangladesh, and having worked for UNDP, VSO, GVEP International and other international NGOs in leadership positions. She is seeking start-up capital for her energy business CARES, whose mission is to combine the breakthrough potential of solar technology with a deliberately community-centered sales network to promote health and wealth to the most remote communities in Uganda. Currently her business is small, but she has the vision and the capability to turn this from a small business to large-scale enterprise, supporting hundreds. She is a Ugandan entrepreneur worthy of serious investment and deserves a chance to sit at the table with men entrepreneurs.
When we talk about gender equality across the value chain, we need to re-shift our attention to the top of the value chain, and not simply focus on microfinance markets. This is very difficult to do when economic systems were designed to support patriarchal societies; however, the energy access sector requires more than just soundbites on women’s empowerment. We need more women executives, CEOs, and heads of energy companies generating wealth, and more gender and energy initiatives like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Program. Until that happens, we will continue to see women entrepreneurs delegated to gender panels at energy conferences.
About the Author
Aneri Pradhan is the Founder and Executive Director of ENVenture, a 501(c)(3) US non-profit organization with operations in Uganda. Her expertise is on last mile distribution, clean energy access, and social innovation, with previous experience working at Facebook, MIT Media Lab, and the United Nations Foundation.