How do you improve the economic situations of the more than 1 billion women and girls around the world who don't have access to electricity?
One answer to that question is coming from a new nonprofit called Solar Sister. Founded in 2010, Solar Sister offers women in Africa an Avon-style "business in a bag" containing several solar-powered LED lamps, mobile phone chargers, promotional and training materials and sales ledgers. Women can then sell the lamps to other women in their communities, who in turn can use the money they would have spent on kerosene on food, health care or school fees for their children.
Solar Sister provides the business kits at no initial cost. The women selling the lamps pay commissions on each sale.
Unlike other ideas that bring photovoltaic panels to villages, only to find that the panels break down too easily, the lamps are "rugged, very intuitive to use, affordable, and readily available," Solar Sister founder Katherine Lucy told Dowser.org. "All of a sudden it's a lot easier for women to use. You stick it out during the day; you bring it in at night; you flip a switch and you have light to read, cook, and even a source to charge your phone."
The lamps cost between $15 and $50, a large investment compared to the $2 a week families might currently spend on kerosene, but "it’s an investment that will pay off in a few months because you'll no longer have to pay for an energy source," Lucy said.
Not only can women earn income by selling the lamps, they can also earn extra money using the lamps to charge their neighbors' cellphones. In rural Uganda, 95 percent of homes do not have access to electricity, but more than 80 percent have cellphones, which can otherwise only be charged during trips to nearby cities.
In addition to money, the lamps have other benefits: they extend the workday, give girls more of a chance to study their schoolbooks at night, and reduce families' exposure to toxic kerosene fumes.
As of last month, there were "107 Solar Sister entrepreneurs working in 10 teams reaching 34 communities in three countries — Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan — bringing the benefit of solar power to over 4,360 African people," Neha Misra, the company's director of programs and development, wrote on the World Bank's Development Marketplace blog.
Solar Sister funds its operations through donations. According to the nonprofit's website, "$500 provides a full 'business in a bag,' the start-up kit of working capital, training and marketing support that empowers a Solar Sister entrepreneur to earn much needed income to support her family, and establish a solar business that brings safe, clean solar light to her community."