Avani Singh was little more than a child when, sitting in a traffic jam in Delhi, she had an idea that would change her life and those of many other people. She noticed thousands of rickshaws winding their way through the cars, cows and trucks: not only that, all of these rickshaws were driven by men. Less than a year later, Avani Singh delivered her first electric rickshaw, running on a solar panel, to Kohinoor, a 33-year-old single mother of two children.
This was the starting point for the “Ummeed ki Rickshaw” (Rickshaw of Hope) programme. This was set up by Singh in order to give women the opportunity to break into a traditionally male profession, by harnessing the energy of the sun in lieu of muscle strength. Even though she wasn’t old enough to get her driving licence, she was already an entrepreneur in the sustainable mobility sector.
Hannah and Her Sisters: female sustainable solutions
When it comes to renewables being harnessed by female creativity, Avani’s story is not an isolated case. Hannah Bürckstümmer, a German researcher, has designed a carbon-based solar panel that can be adapted to various surfaces. In Israel, Adital Ela has founded a company that produces innovative and sustainable solutions: from street lights running on wind energy to lamps created from agricultural waste products by Arab women. DeAndrea Newman Salvador heads a non-profit organisation, the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative, which helps low-income families in the United States access sustainable and efficient energy products. Steph Speirs runs a “solar community” company: people who don’t have the possibility of installing a photovoltaic panel in their house can purchase a quota from their neighbours. Majd Mashharawi’s experience is similar, in the Gaza Strip she has created a system of solar power plants shared by a number of families.
Women and clean energy: a strong link
There appears to be a strong link between women and clean energy at every level. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has calculated that while 22% of all workers in the fossil-fuel sector are female, the number rises to 32% in renewables. Rebecca Rewald, author of the “Energy and Women and Girls” report, which was published by Oxfam, explains that “the industry of renewables is newer and so it seems likely that it doesn’t have a tradition of male domination inherited from an earlier age.”
There is also another factor: increasingly, renewable sources are proving to be the ideal solution for bringing electricity to isolated areas, especially in developing countries, with mini grids or off-grid solutions, increasingly distributed and often at a domestic level. In many cultural contexts, women have more say in their homes compared to the role they may have in public life.
According to a study by Kellie McElhaney and Sanaz Mobasseri from the University of California - Berkeley, companies with the highest percentage of women in top management are more likely to invest in renewables and to consider environmental risks.
“There is always added value when there is more diversity in decision-making bodies, whether that diversity is in gender or other types,” explains Rewald, “a diversity of individuals and their experiences leads to a greater diversity of ideas, approaches, strategies and processes.”
There you have it. This is not a question of men against women or even of rights and opportunities: including more women always translates into an advantage for everyone.
Improving women’s lives
If a female workforce benefits the spread of clean energy and the climate, the converse is also true: renewable sources are a tool that can improve the life of women. In many rural areas, for example in Africa, where cooking often requires using polluting and inefficient combustible fuels, the installation of small solar plants makes the switch to electric stoves possible. The first advantage to this is that the air inside the house (where women spend much of their time) becomes healthier. Furthermore, their life improves because the women in question no longer have to spend a good part of the day looking for firewood: their safety is improved and they have more opportunity to go back to school.
The spread of renewables also helps women grow culturally, as bringing electricity to isolated areas increases the opportunity of access to the radio, television or the internet. Furthermore, electrification from renewable sources favours micro-entrepreneurship, such as in the case of Avani Singh’s rickshaw.
Optimism is not enough
Optimism, however, is not enough. Female participation at 32% is certainly an increase on the fossil-fuel sector, but Rewald sees the number as “still rather low: more efforts are needed.”
Numerous initiatives have been launched, especially in developing countries. The Barefoot College train illiterate, older women in rural areas in the installation of photovoltaic plants: they are known as the “solar grandmothers.” Similar projects can be found in Indonesia – Wonder Women – and Sub-Saharan Africa – Solar Sister.
Judith Mugeta lives in central Tanzania. Thanks to a World Bank programme focused on the economic and environmental advantages of biogas, she completed a training course and was given a loan for the purchase of two cows that could provide her with prime material. Judith has now built a vat for the conversion of manure into biogas and a conduit that takes it directly to the kitchen: she has started to sell milk and has hired two assistants. But the thing that makes her most happy is that she will now be able to send her children to university, thanks to saving on energy costs and the earnings from her new activity.
Judith’s story is similar to those of Avani, Hannah, Adital and others. Stories that are very different from each other: some are set in the countryside of Africa, others in cities in the United States. Stories of emancipation and hope that confirm a winning new formula: the combination of women and renewable energy.