The southern highlands of Tanzania are blessed with fertile soil and good weather. But some areas are also known for extreme poverty and a lack of infrastructure.
Solar power has the potential to change that, offering people in remote areas access to safe, clean energy and giving them an alternative to the kerosene they rely on for lighting and cooking.
With more than 1.2 billion people in the world lacking access to electricity and most of them living in Asia or sub-Saharan African countries, solar can also offer a pathway out of energy poverty and, for some, the potential for a thriving business.
That’s where companies like Solar Sister – whose founder is participating in the World Economic Forum on Africa – come in. The social enterprise offers training to women in Tanzania and other parts of rural Africa to distribute clean energy, which leaves them with an electricity source and a business to boot.
Isabella, a mother of four from the Iringa Region in Tanzania, is one such entrepreneur. While a government project has funded electricity poles and wires in her area, the connection cost was prohibitive for most people she knew.
Hearing about Solar Sister from her daughter, Isabella saved the profits from her potato farm and invested in the training. Now she sells small solar lights and larger ones that can also charge mobile phones.
The impacts of such technology are far wider than simply providing light – and are backed up by the findings of an independent study into Solar Sister’s work carried out by the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
Solar lights enable students to study for longer into the evening, relieve families of the damaging health effects of kerosene and enable people to start new businesses or improve old ones since they have more usable hours in the day.
“Solar-powered lighting is a technology central to the development of rural Tanzania, transforming the education, health, time, finances, and sense of power in every household it reaches,” the report says.
“The conscious creation of trust networks and entrepreneurial solutions to poverty add value to this social enterprise through empowering women to create new economic and social opportunities.”
Women are among the key beneficiaries, since evidence shows they disproportionately bear the burden of energy poverty. Distributing renewable energy solutions in this way bolsters the position of women in the local community, both economically and socially, the Miller Center report found.
In a flagship report published in 2014 and due to be updated, the International Energy Agency highlighted the scope of “energy poverty” in sub-Saharan Africa.
That report estimated more than 620 million people live without access to electricity and nearly 730 million people use hazardous, inefficient forms of cooking, something that affects women disproportionately.
“Those who do have access to modern energy face very high prices for a supply that is both insufficient and unreliable,” the report said. “Overall, the energy sector of sub-Saharan Africa is not yet able to meet the needs and aspirations of its citizens.”
While renewable energy sources, including sun, wind and hydro, are in plentiful supply in the region, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, it’s important they are fostered and included in the plans for the future.
That makes the increased uptake of renewables even more important. The IEA estimates that renewables will make up almost half of sub-Saharan Africa’s power generation growth by 2040.
And there are side benefits: Solar Sister says it also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions as households in rural villages get access to clean energy solutions, meaning they rely less on fossil fuels for lighting and cooking.
The results are tangible, with people who use Solar Sister saying they are now able to fetch water at night, and keep working after dark, which helps them increase their business profits, and read with their children at bedtime.
As the Miller Center report concludes: “Clearly, the impact of solar lanterns goes well beyond being a sustainable form of lighting.”