Almost 1.6 billion people on the planet don’t have access to electricity. And 70% of these are women and girls for whom the darkness is quite literal. Today, even though portable solar LED lighting technology is an affordable solution; lack of innovation in distribution channels has kept the products from being available in the rural markets where traditional supply chains simply do not exist.
The challenge is to marry technology innovation with a delivery system that is efficient, sustainable and scalable. Solar Sister is an innovative social enterprise addressing this weakest link through a market-based, gender inclusive, bottom-up solution to bring a new kind of clean energy revolution in Africa.
With an Avon-style women-driven business model, Solar Sister addresses both geographical access - making clean energy products available at the rural customer's doorstep; and cultural access - closing the gender-technology gap by including women as key players in the provision of technology solutions instead of as passive consumers of energy.
Solar Sister uses the micro-consignment model (MCM) to provide the women with a 'business in a bag', a start-up kit of inventory of portable solar lamps and mobile phone chargers, training and marketing support like branded flyers, stickers, posters, t-shirts, business bag, ledgers for Solar Sister entrepreneurs to keep sales record along with support for community launch events to showcase the products at high visibility locations. Since Solar Sister entrepreneurs sell on consignment, the women do not have to pay for the inventory until they sell it, earning a commission on each sale.
A MCM based model addresses the particular needs of the women including their lack of access to capital and low-threshold for risk, while allowing them to make the most out of their most valuable asset, their social capital, as they build out their sales through their network of family, friends and neighbors. The arrangement aligns the interests of Solar Sister with the interests of the entrepreneur. The MCM model is flexible with low fixed costs, and is also scalable and adaptable.
Solar Sister is the only organization in the world formed with the exclusive mission to build an Africa wide network of women solar entrepreneurs using its innovative high impact approach to address extreme energy poverty. Solar Sister envisions itself as one part Avon (focus on women driven direct selling), one part Best Buy (focus on technology that serves people, and not the other way around - by providing best products at best prices) and one part eBay (focus on innovative use of ICT for inventory management and operational efficiency at large). This women-centric systems approach as a last mile distributer of clean energy is unique and valued not only by women entrepreneurs and their customers on demand side but also by our product partners that include the World Bank and IFC’s Lighting Africa Outstanding Product Award Winners D.Light Design and Barefoot Power, along with other innovators like Angaza Design, Nokero, PiSAT Solar and SunNight Solar at various stages of their lifecycle.
The market is the best judge and Solar Sister entrepreneurs provide product specific feedback, which helps our technology partners design better products. Solar Sister is currently testing different products including new styles of solar lights, cell phone chargers and radios by supplying them to our Entrepreneurs and gathering market acceptance data.
Solar Sister began operations in East Africa with a successful pilot project implemented in Uganda in March 2010. Today, there are 107 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs working in 10 teams reaching 34 communities in 3 countries - Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan bringing the benefit of solar power to over 4360 African people. With the success of the program so far, the team aims to develop a mobile interface IT enabled tracking and reporting mechanism for Solar Sister entrepreneurs. Leveraging its hybrid value chain, the enterprise aims to build a network of 5000 Solar Sister entrepreneurs in 5 African countries in 5 years who will bring the benefits of clean energy to over 2.5 million people annually.
Neha Misra, Director of Programs and Development, Solar Sister