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.

Intensive farming ‘massively slowed’ global warming

      June 2010 by

Andy Coghlan

Fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid high-yielding seeds saved the planet from an extra dose of global warming. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new analysis which finds that the intensification of farming through the green revolution has unjustly been blamed for speeding up global warming.

Steven Davis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Palo Alto, California, and colleagues calculated how much greenhouse gases would have been emitted over the past half-century if the green revolution had not happened.

The study included carbon dioxide and other gases such as methane emitted by rice paddies. It found that, overall, the intensification of farming helped keep the equivalent of 600 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere – roughly a third of all human greenhouse-gas emissions between 1850 and 2005.

The emissions were avoided because the green revolution boosted crop yields – for instance by promoting hybrid varieties that had higher yields, and through widespread distribution of pesticides and fertilisers. This meant that more food could be produced without having to slash vast swathes of forest to expand farmland.

Complete story at New Scientist

Original paper at  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914216107

Banana Love in Drought-Hit Uganda

Henry Lutaaya, Kampaala.

In Uganda bananas are helping to cushion families against unexpected weather changes providing a source of carbohydrates throughout the year. But they’re not always easy to grow, with the drought forcing people to mulch and compost more than before.

Augustine Nsada has become famous in his trading centre of Kasambira in Kamuli district of western Uganda, albeit for doing what many of his folks know how to do already.

Thirty-year-old Nsada gained popularity for being the only commercial producer and supplier of plantain bananas last year when the area was facing a severe drought. The bananas are a staple food crop in most parts of Uganda, but production has been declining in recent years.

Using largely abandoned traditional practices of mulching and applying compost to his bananas, Nsada managed to continue producing badly-needed food. The composting is effective, but it is used with few other crops.

The people of Kasambira and much of Busoga region in eastern Uganda had till 2009 been self-sufficient in food, growing plenty of maize, sweet potatoes and beans. But a six-month drought, starting in April 2009, altered seasons and delayed rainfall. It took many poor farmers by surprise: they had experienced nothing like it for years. The serious food shortage that affected households forced hundreds of thousands of people to buy food from traders instead of being able to rely on the seasonal crops they grew themselves.

A man pushes his bicycle loaded with green bananas, in Uganda.
Bananas are being recognised as an important source of food secuity with unpredictable weather
/ Trygve Bolstad – Panos pictures

Claims that climate change caused the drought

The Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture attributed the unexpected drought to climate change. While there is no conclusive evidence of this, recent reports, including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, point to the weather changes already apparent in poor countries like Uganda. A study by Oxfam in 2008 concluded that the erratic rainfall seen recently in Uganda was consistent with scientific predictions of the effects of man-made global warming, while cautioning that weather patterns in Africa are still relatively poorly understood.

Whatever the origin, the impact was devastating. Last year’s drought in Uganda is estimated to have affected up to five million people, in a nation of 31 million.

Plantains are not particularly nutritious compared with beans and maize. But plantain consumption is a strong part of Ugandan culture, which insists that any serious meal must include steamed plantains.

Nsada managed to continue harvesting the plantains for home consumption and for sale throughout the drought. Plantains will grow all year round with moderate rainfall and sunshine. But plantain growing is demanding work, and not many people are ready for the laborious mulching and pruning required.

“During the recent drought, many people looked to me for food because they had consumed all their reserves,” he said.

Cushioning families

Abdu Waiswa, who runs a maize mill in Kasambira, agreed that annual crops like bananas and cassava can help to cushion families against unexpected weather changes such as droughts.

Dr. Andrew Kigundu, a banana researcher at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Kawanda, near Kampala, says bananas store water in their stems as well as producing fruit all year round, making them a vital source of food security during dry spells. But he says that, ‘Bananas have succumbed to extreme weather changes largely because most farmers have abandoned the old traditional practices such as mulching”.

‘Mulching not only prevents fast loss of moisture from the soils, but also minimises tillage that destroys the crop’s root system,” Dr Kigundu says.

While much of the country has largely recovered from the effects of last year’s drought, the government has been encouraging people in its broadcasts to store cereals so that events like the drought find them better prepared.

But the increasing frequency, length and sudden onset of droughts and floods in Uganda and its neighbouring countries in recent years has meant it is difficult to estimate just how much food people need to store when they are already poor.

David Isabirye, a resident of Nalinaibiri near Kasambira trading centre, said he had kept some food for his family last year, but was forced to sell some to pay his children’s school fees.

Uganda’s State Minister of Agriculture, Henry Bagiire, says the government is pursuing several measures, including encouraging the growing of annual crops.

Annual crop production facing challenges

But the shift towards annual crop production faces many other challenges. Farmers usually prefer seasonal crops, which normally guarantee them two annual harvests, have a longer lifespan than the highly perishable plantains, and are eaten by more people outside Uganda.

Pests are another problem. Scientists estimate that over the past ten years Uganda’s banana production has halved because of the devastating effect of the banana wilt disease. Cassava, another important source of carbohydrates for most communities, has been greatly affected by the cassava brown streak virus. Scientists from NARI say they are close to developing disease-resistant varieties.

Land scarcity is also a factor. Widespread sugarcane growing has taken up much of the land previously used for food production. High population growth rates mean portions of land becoming increasingly smaller, which when cultivated continuously quickly lose their fertility.

Nsada also says the lack of political leadership in the area to mobilise people for production is one of the problems that has deepened vulnerability during weather-related disasters. ‘The government needs to follow its words of encouraging people to save the environment and grow more food with concrete actions and support that ensure people replenish their soil fertility,” he says.

Henry Lutaaya is a Ugandan journalist working as a News Editor for The Sunrise newspaper, published in Kampala. He wrote this article thanks to a fellowship with the Climate Change Media Partnership – an initiative of the Panos Network, Internews and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

From poacher to gamekeeper

4 June 2010 | Eugene Kwibuka

When a gorilla poacher told Rwandan conservationist and businessman Edwin Sabuhoro, “You’ve eaten, you’ve got a job that pays you and that’s why you are chasing us,” he stopped to think about it.

When a gorilla poacher told Rwandan conservationist and businessman Edwin Sabuhoro, “You’ve eaten, you’ve got a job that pays you and that’s why you are chasing us,” he stopped to think about it.

He realised the poachers had no other source of income, and that tourists were prepared to pay US$500 just for permission to view one of the central African country’s rare mountain gorillas.

So he invested about three million Rwandan Francs (about US$5,200) in a plan to turn the poachers into gamekeepers. And that’s why many former gorilla hunters are now ardent conservationists.

A mountain gorilla in Rwanda / Eric Miller - Panos PicturesA mountain gorilla in Rwanda / Eric Miller – Panos Pictures

Léonidas Barora is one of them.

“I was a real animal,” Barora says of his 30 years as a hunter in the volcano forest in the country’s north-west. “We used to run in the bushes like animals and hide from park guards, who were always trying to arrest us. My hair grew long and I and my fellow poachers smelt so strange that people would run away.”

He sold elephant ivory and his family ate wild meat.

Now, aged 64 and sitting in the Iby’Iwacu (literally: “Home-grown”) Cultural Centre, a tourist site set up on the edge of the park to provide alternatives to poaching, Barora says he would be the first to arrest poachers if he saw them.

“I don’t have the desire to go back to the forest to look for something to eat. My food comes from here,” he says, pointing to the centre’s facilities. “I use the money they pay me to buy food for myself and my family.”

Iby’Iwacu got underway in 2007, when Sabuhoro recruited about 1,000 people from the forest perimeter into an anti-poaching association. He knew the community because a few years earlier – as a park worker for Rwanda’s Tourism and Wildlife Conservation Office – he had disguised himself as a businessman in order to act as a mediator between poachers and police.

Sabuhoro helped develop farming activities and set up handicraft and other small-scale businesses to service the tourists who visit and stay to at the centre, which is owned by the villagers.

Visitors pay more to spend more time with the villagers. They enjoy the do-it-yourself activities, such as helping dig up potatoes, fetching water, collecting firewood and cooking a meal. They can also do a “community walk”, visiting a local church and talking to local elders and leaders.

There’s a replica of a royal palace, four traditional mud huts where visitors can sleep, cook and wash. A local healer is on hand to demonstrate medicinal herbs.

Ex-poachers dance, drum and shoot arrows to showcase Rwanda’s traditional way of life – for a US$20 fee. Barora is one of the performers.

“I have to admit that when we first came in I was very afraid that it would be very artificial and staged,” 50-year-old Georgia Paul from the United States told me after a holiday there with her husband. “But I think that the important thing is understanding why they are doing it,” she adds. “As long as you know that there’s a purpose to it, then it is not artificial – it’s much more sincere.”

About 100 tourists a month visit the centre, mostly from Australia, Britain and North America, and it’s clear from my interviews that a major attraction is the idea that the people who would once have been destroying the animals are helping conserve them.

“We saw one gorilla today missing a hand because of the traps,” said Georgia’s 61-year old husband, Michael. “If we can show the people a better way to live, to be happy and productive, a lot of things will change. We have to make it profitable for them – they have to be able to make a living doing this.”

The income from the cultural activities goes to the village fund: 40 per cent is paid to the performers, 60 per cent is invested in health insurance, high-yielding seeds, education, and developing small-scale businesses. Sabuhoro’s travel agency, Rwanda Eco-Tours, advises the association’s managers and brings tourists to the village.

Sabuhoro’s target is to help raise the village’s current monthly income of US$1,000 to US$100,000 by 2015.

Iby’Iwacu and the 18 other ex-poacher associations involved in tourism in Rwanda have helped cut poaching by 60 per cent, according to tourism officials.

Sabuhoro also points to the strong personal impact made by this form of ecotourism. “Tourists have developed attachments with people [the villagers], which they don’t do with the gorillas,” he says. “They write back to ask how everybody is doing.”

More importantly, he observes, the Iby’Iwacu initiative is helping build a poaching-free generation of people living around the park and socialising with the tourists, “a generation that will not leave its children and the future generation to starve”. It has not fully achieved this aim: about five per cent of Iby’Iwacu members are believed to be still poaching.

Innocent Twagirimana, the association’s president and a guide at the cultural centre, says that his father was a poacher “and I became one of the members of this group because they knew my father was one of them. Now I feel good because I get my salary at the end of the month.”

At Euros 225 million a year, tourism is Rwanda’s top foreign exchange earner – not bad for a country that 15 years ago was torn apart by the last major genocide of the 20th century.

Drocella Nyirabureteri, a 47-year-old mother of three who spends about a half of her working hours at Iby’Iwacu, has a more human take on tourism revenues:  “I get money to buy food when tourists buy my baskets,” she says – and she compares the death of an animal in the park to the death of a baby because, she points out, it is thanks to the forest animals that her community has a tarmac road, tapwater and classrooms.

Source: Eugene Kwibuka is a freelance Rwandan journalist

KENYA: Wilbroda Wandera, “We won’t sleep hungry when I have 40 shillings”

KENYA: Wilbroda Wandera, “We won’t sleep hungry when I have 40 shillings”

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Wilbroda Wandera

KIBERA, 14 May 2010 (IRIN) – Widowed 16 years ago, Wilbroda Aoko Wandera, 48, has had to become creative with the little she has, at times spending just 40 shillings (US$0.50) to feed her family of 10. She has no steady job and sells spinach, plaits hair and washes clothes for a fee. She spoke to IRIN on 13 May:

“My husband had been sick for a long time, but his relatives chased me away with my children and demolished our house upcountry when he died, saying I had something to do with his death. Since then life has been one long struggle.

“My mother sent me bus fare when she learnt I had been chased away and I returned to Nairobi where we had been living before my husband died.

“I have tried many things to feed my family and to put the children into school; right now two boys are in secondary school.

“I have sold [donuts] and worked as a cleaner at the Catholic Church nearby. One time I got lucky when the local chief allowed me to build a kiosk near the road; I used the front part as a salon where I plaited people’s hair and lived in the back with my children. However, this was demolished in 2007 to pave way for the Kibera slum upgrading programme. Now I live near the river, where I have built a mud structure.

“We mostly live on one meal a day. This is hard, especially on the children. I have learnt to make meals for the whole family even when I have only 40 shillings [$0.50]. With this, I buy maize flour for 20 shillings, sugar for five, paraffin for 10, a lemon for two and water for three. This will make a [pot] of porridge and everybody can get a cup. That takes us to the next day.

“When I have 50 shillings, I buy sukuma wiki [kales] for 10 shillings, maize flour for 30, cooking oil for five and paraffin for five. With this, I cook ugali and the sukuma wiki and everyone will at least have a hot meal.

“On a good day, when I make at least 100 shillings, the diet is better; I buy maize flour for 45, omena [sardines] for 20, tomatoes for 10, paraffin for 10 and cooking oil for 10. This is enough for two meals for the whole family. But the days I make 100 are rare. Besides, when I make more than 100, I put away some money for school fees and rent.

“I feel blessed that I have the support of other widows. We formed a self-help group in 2007. We are there for each other, we skip meals together, we help each other in merry-go-round donations of 20 shillings a week and struggle to bring up our children. Life in Kibera is hard but it is 10 times harder for a widow with children.”

Source: IRIN News