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Small Businesses: An Approach to Addressing Energy Access and Gender Inequality
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By Aysha Rajput

With women generally underrepresented in the workforce, small-scale energy access businesses are proving an effective way to provide women with sustainable employment opportunities in their energy poor communities. Empower Generation (EG), a Nepal and U.S.-based nonprofit, provides low-interest loans and training to rural Nepalese women, empowering them to start their own businesses selling clean energy products in their communities.

EG identifies and recruits women to start their own clean energy businesses and to join its distribution network. Those selected receive training in sales and marketing and finance. In addition, entrepreneurs learn how to hire and manage their own workforce of sales agents. EG loans them capital to start their own businesses and offers a line of credit to buy clean energy products from for-profit affiliate Kalpavriksha Greater Goods, a clean energy wholesaler. When the entrepreneurs pay back their loans, the money is put into a fund to help other rural women start their own clean energy businesses. EG’s distribution network is made up of 20 women-led businesses with 259 sales agents across 12 districts. The network has sold more than 56,278 clean energy products.

Energy poor communities rely on expensive and dangerous kerosene, candles, disposable torches or spend much of their time collecting wood for fuel. Local small businesses in EG’s distribution network fill the gap for rural communities with little to no reliable power from existing infrastructure. By providing cookstoves, solar lights, and off-grid home energy systems, businesses in EG’s network provide both high quality clean energy products and economic empowerment opportunities to rural women in their communities.

Businesses in EG’s network not only provide their communities with physical access to clean energy products but also offer financing and payment options viable for rural customers. Selling clean energy products in rural areas is difficult. Potential customers are living hand-to-mouth and spending money on solar lighting or clean cookstoves may seem cost-prohibitive. Small businesses in EG’s network are piloting a pay-as-you-go mobile payment option for larger solar home systems, giving families an opportunity to access these more expensive products. Mobile money allows customers to pay for their home system electronically in installments via their cell phone rather than in cash. Rural, remote customers can make their payments at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional methods because they do not have to travel far distances to pay a sales agent in-person.

In addition to financing options, EG’s model gives rural women, who have few employment options, a chance to become business leaders. In rural Nepal, women have little sustainable employment opportunities due to lack of education and to perceptions of women’s role in society. Many rural women are often expected to do unpaid agricultural work for their families as well as manage household chores. This socially normalized role of Nepalese women means that like many women in the developing world, their health is negatively affected by dirty indoor energy emissions from cooking. However, with their experience as household mangers, they already have knowledge of local energy markets and know the energy needs of their communities. Building on this local knowledge, EG provides the support needed for women in these communities to start their own clean small energy businesses who in turn employ women and some men as sales agents.

By participating in EG’s distribution network, women entrepreneurs and sales agents are changing long-held perceptions of women in Nepalese society. By earning an income, women in EG’s network report that they have more say in making financial decisions and earn greater respect among family members. In some cases, family members are initially opposed to women working outside the home, but change their thinking as family income increases. Others have described how members of their communities believed that women could not run their own businesses but change their minds once an entrepreneur establishes her business. As entrepreneurs earning an independent income, the women in EG’s network are beginning to change family and community perceptions of the role of women in Nepal.

Small businesses play an important role in energy poor communities. They provide physical and financial access to clean energy products and can create sustainable employment opportunities for women. For the women in EG’s network, earning an income changes how they are perceived in their families and communities and leads to greater autonomy and respect. This fulfills EG’s mission to empower women to power the world.

Aysha Rajput is the Communications Director at Empower Generation. She has worked with women entrepreneurs in Laos, Nepal, and Rwanda and holds an MA in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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