Solar Sisters: The Avon Lady of African Renewables

Alex Aylett, 2 Jun 10

Solar Sisters, a new solar entrepreneur program, has taken Avon’s social sales model and is using it to spread solar powered lamps across Uganda. Avon cosmetics began as a failed 19th century book-selling venture. Its “Avon Calling” approach, where saleswomen sold directly to other women, helped it grow into one of the 500 largest companies in the United States with annual global revenues of over US$10 billion.

Both energy and cosmetics have a lot to do with gender.Solar Sisters — like the Barefoot Solar Engineers that I’ve written about earlier — uses the special place that women have as procurers and managers of fuel use to take on the social, environmental and economic impacts of energy poverty.

In the developing world women are primarily responsible for gathering, purchasing and using household energy: wood, coal, kerosene or gas. Smoke from using these fuels indoors causes serious long term health problems. Poor households also spend a greater percentage of their income on energy than wealthier ones, and are charged more for energy. This unreliable and costly access to energy, especially electricity, is one of the key factors that drives migration from rural and semi-rural areas to expanding cities.

Now starting their first pilot projects, Solar Sisters approach to these issues is relatively simple: they sell two different models of solar lamps (a basic model, and a larger one that also recharges cellphones). The lamps can replace both kerosene lights and long trips into urban areas to get phones recharged. In a recent ChangeMakers article, Katherine Lucey, former banker and founder of Solar Sisters, explains the multiple benefits of the lamps:

“With solar, they don’t have to breathe in tadooba toxic fumes. When they look at the black walls of their house, they realize that if the walls are black, the inside of their lungs are black…Economically, it makes sense because within two months, they they’ll recover the cost of having to buy kerosene. This immediately frees up 20 percent of their income.”

Last year, Oxford business professor Linda Scott argued that the Avon model might even be better then microfinance when if comes to lifting women out of poverty. Initial results from research that she has been doing in South Africa show it to be more accessible than microcredit and well suited to dynamics of local communities.

Whether lessons learned from lipstick in South Africa will hold true for solar lamps in Uganda is an open question. But Lucey claims that for the female entrepreneurs working for Solar Sisters, the lamps offer a rare economic opportunity and can bring in up to US$450 a year. Solar Sisters covers the upfront costs of the women’s first solar light inventory, and they then use their earnings to purchase more inventory.

The biggest hurdle may be the price of the lamps themselves. The two models sell for US$15 and US$45. That may simply be out of reach for many families. The Solar Sisters blog discusses one community that came up with a way of collectively financing their purchases (something also done for livestock and other larger purchases).

In an interview, Lucey talks about the difficulty of convincing women to think of the lanterns as a long-term investment. It is about more than a change in thinking though. The same factors that stop women from saving money by purchasing larger quantities of kerosene or coal also apply to solar. A lack of savings, unpredictable finances and in some cases concerns over theft steer women to purchase energy (and many other daily commodities like rice and oil) in small amounts.

Solar Sisters is a promising project – and the image of solar “Avon Ladies” spreading across Africa is hard to resist. Solar Sisters is addressing the same issues as the impressive Indian Barefoot Solar Engineer program. That program’s success depended both on a clear understanding of women’s roles as energy managers and on a smart approach to financing. That second part seems to be the one thing missing from the Solar Sisters project. Before Solar Sisters really takes off, I have a feeling that they will take the lessons learned from their early clients’ community financing arrangements and build them directly into their business model.

This post originally appeared on Alex’s blog Open Alex.
Alex Aylett is a Senior Research Associate at the International Centre for Sustainable Cities and a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. He is the recipient of a Trudeau Research Scholarship and has worked as a consultant and researcher in North America and South Africa. He is currently based in Montreal. You can read his blog here.
Images from Avon and Solar Sisters.

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