Solar empowered women: Kenya’s renewable energy entrepreneurs

The Climate Emergency is one of the greatest threats facing our planet.

80% of the people displaced by climate change around the world are women and girls, forcing them to walk farther for water and work on ever more degraded lands for their food.

According to the United Nations, an increase in temperatures is predicted to force 120 million additional people into extreme poverty with substantial economic loses for the poorest 20%.

To address these alarming impacts, Plan International is working in communities around the world to build resilience to climate change.

Part of this involves transitioning to cleaner, greener fuel sources while also providing economic empowerment opportunities to help families cope with sudden environmental shocks, such as drought or disasters.

In particular, our solar project in the Kilifi county of Kenya, a region frequently hit by droughts and flooding, is working not only to provide renewable energy to thousands of homes without access to the government’s electrical grid, but also to bolster women’s economic rights in the community.

Girl uses solar powered lamp to see at night and do homework.

In Kenya, men and women’s roles in the household are defined by traditional stereotypes – men are expected to provide financially while women are expected to raise children and do domestic work such as cooking and cleaning.

These prevailing gender norms have long left many women with little to no opportunity for self-actualization. In addition, domestic isolation has meant that women rarely engage in income generating activity beyond their homestead and have little to no control over household assets and income.

Providing additional income is particularly critical for family’s living in poverty as children’s education, specifically girls’ education, is often not prioritized in times of financial hardship.

When children are not in school, their chances for economic mobility are diminished and this is especially true for girls as they are more likely to get married and have children earlier without an education.  

Some of Plan International’s solar entrepreneurs holding their Solar Home Systems

Furthermore, only 23% of the Kenyan population has access to electricity. This means that many rural communities rely on fuels such as kerosene and biomass, like firewood, to light up their homes and businesses. In fact, the use of kerosene can be a significant financial burden with families spending up to 25-30% of their income on this fuel which is not only toxic, but also a cause of major air pollution resulting in significant negative health impacts.

The aim of Plan International’s Kilifi Solar Project is to reduce dependence on kerosene or other high-emissions fuels by providing affordable solar home systems to households through our Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) which are designed specifically to empower women with business skills and economic opportunity.

Here’s how it works

Click the numbers below to reveal how the project works 

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1:30 local women receive Solar Home Systems (SHS), as well as entrepreneurship and business skills training 

In the end 

  • Parents have more money for children’s health and education  
  • Using cleaner, greener energy source to help combat climate change  
  • Women defy traditional norms and improve their status within the community   

Merceline’s story  

“I was a young bride when my brother-in-law died and left behind 10 children in the care of my husband,” says Merceline, 37. “We had to find a way to take care of these children,” adding that she later had a child of her own, bringing the total of children up to 11.  

In order to make ends meet, Merceline started selling groceries and eventually she became involved with Plan International’s solar project.  

“We were trained and learned about entrepreneurial skills such as budgeting, saving and good customer relations,” she says. “Within the first 4 months, I made Ksh.4000 ($53).”  

“With the income, I am able to support my family and ease the burden that was there before. My children are very excited about the solar lamps because I have installed one in our home. Now they are able to do their homework at night.”  

Merceline has no plans to slow down her new business ventures. She recently used savings from solar sales to get a loan from her VSLA to purchase a water pump. Now, she is selling clean water to her community and is making an additional Ksh. 3000 ($39) per week to help support her family.  

“Seeing all the children get an education and food to eat really makes me happy,” she says.  

A husband’s perspective  

Chengo is the proud husband of Zubeda, another one of Plan International’s solar entrepreneurs. She joined the project to help her family earn a living and has had great success selling solar home systems.  

As a man in his community, Chengo faces backlash because he supports Zubeda’s business. While she is at the market or on the road making sales, Chengo is at home preparing food, fetching water and taking care of his daughters – tasks that are traditionally reserved for women.  

But Chengo pays no attention to the chatter because he can see for himself how Zubeda’s business is thriving and changing their lives – the family now has more money and his daughters are learning that women can be breadwinners too.  

“When a woman is given the opportunity to earn her own income, she builds self-esteem because she has her own money and no longer has to borrow from her husband.”  

When asked, what he would say to other men in the community who think women should not participate in business, he says:  

“A lot of men who have that character – not allowing women to work – I advise them, when you marry, you’re not buying a possession. You should not restrict her from achieving her full potential.”  

Tribute the powerful women in your life   

All women and girls have equal power, but not all get equal opportunity to exercise their power.  

As we’ve seen in Kilifi, Plan International Canada works with communities to tackle unequal power relationships in order to remove barriers and provide equal access to opportunities – so that women and girls can realize their rights. 

This International Women’s Day, you can help advance gender equality by donating in tribute to a powerful woman in your life. Donate by March 8 to make a tribute that helps women thrive and empowers the next generation of women and girls. 

Make a tribute