By Carolina Pan and Hannibal Tesfahunegn June 21, 2023
Women have been the main driving force behind the large-scale adoption of Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) products such as solar lanterns, solar appliances and renewable energy mini-grids across developing countries.
Sensitive to the fact that they have the most to gain from energy access, women founders and leaders have been instrumental in popularizing and advocating for DRE products.1 DRE technologists have also seen the entrepreneurial capability of many women flourish in remote areas.
In turn, DRE companies have enhanced their products to cater to women’s domestic and business needs by offering efficient, clean cooking stoves, thereby addressing gender imbalances in rural developing economies.
However, significant socioeconomic barriers still need to be tackled.
A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows DRE companies showcase a more gender-balanced workforce in the energy sector,2 with women’s participation higher than in oil and gas. Women hold about 40% of global solar PV jobs,3 compared to 22% in the oil and gas sector.4
Similarly, a report by Power for All revealed increasing female involvement in the DRE sector,5 with Kenya and Nigeria, in particular, seeing significant growth between 2018 and 2021.
What we are seeing in the relatively nascent DRE sector is significant participation from the get-go. Women have transcended many traditional employment barriers and are achieving tremendous success in those jobs.
Customers of DRE products have indicated that they feel more comfortable buying products from female sales representatives,6 so women’s employment is helping energy companies retain customers and support profitability.
A survey conducted by a large DRE company reveals that women are better ambassadors for rural electrification.7 According to the survey, women bring in more new customers than men do. The story is similar for clean cooking companies, where female entrepreneurs sell three times more stoves than their male counterparts do.8
DRE products significantly impact women’s lives in developing countries. For example, women save 10 hours a week with clean cooking stoves that otherwise would have been spent gathering fuel.9 In Tanzania, women with solar lanterns were reported to have more decision-making power and respect in their households and communities.10 Health-wise, the use of solar suitcases in Ugandan health centers is estimated to have reduced perinatal deaths by a staggering 72%.11
While DRE’s positive impact on women is commendable, challenges remain, such as recruitment and retention of female workers. A study by the International Finance Corporation indicated social and physical barriers such as the distance between home and work, challenges due to physical conditions, and a lack of skilled women also hinder gender-diverse workforces.12 Furthermore, women face implicit bias in the sector13 because they are wrongly being stereotyped as having poor performance in demanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles.
Although the sector has made progress, women remain underrepresented in technical jobs like electrical work or installation maintenance due to implicit bias and other factors. Conversely, they have higher representation in office and sales positions. This trend extends to the renewable energy sector and national economies, with women holding a higher share of administrative roles than of STEM-related jobs, according to IRENA.14
The DRE sector, as a new and growing industry, holds potential for significant impact on gender equality. To seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity, gender-sensitive initiatives are crucial, including tailored product design, supportive workplace environments, targeted outreach, and targeted reskilling or upskilling programs for female candidates.
The trailblazers, the women in Africa, India and other parts of the developing world who have asserted themselves and worked tirelessly to improve their communities and deliver access to energy, should be applauded and supported. But there are still many more women who have yet to reap the advantages of energy access. We must seize the opportunity to ensure that energy access uplifts every woman in developing countries.
About the Authors
Carolina Pan is the director of research at Power for All and has a background in economics and international development. She leads the campaign’s efforts to conduct research and produce high-quality content for broad audiences, having previously worked with Harvard University, the World Bank and the United Nations.
Hannibal Tesfahunegn is the research manager at Power for All and has experience in consulting covering agriculture, public health, energy access and economic development. He leads data analysis and content production. Hannibal holds a master’s in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.