Wanjira Mathai on women's renewable energy entrepreneurship in LDCs

EIF Coordinators Hang Tran and Simon Hess interview Wanjira Mathai of wPOWER partnership on women's entrepeneurship in renewables

Simon Hess:  Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how your passion for women entrepreneurship and renewables came about.

It started officially in 2013: I had been chair of the Green Belt Movement for many years, and we were looking at how women are in many ways at the center of issues of energy, environment and water. The foundations of the Green Belt Movement were really around the fact that women were struggling to get a secure water supply, a secure food supply and a secure fuel supply, and the idea that trees could provide all three in some ways — while restoring the landscape and restoring rivers — was really compelling.

All of that was happening in 1977, and interestingly, in 2013, we were still talking about energy poverty: that struck me as quite amazing because friends of my mother [Nobel Laureate Warangi Maathai] were already talking about energy efficiency back in the 1960s, and here we were still talking about what was not going well.

It was at about the same time [in 2013] that the US State department decided they wanted to expand a project that they had called wPOWER, which is a partnership for women entrepreneurs in renewable energy. They wanted to create what they called a “hub,” and that hub was to be in Kenya and associated with the Wangari Maathai Institute. Then, of course we spun off and wPOWER now stands on its own at a different location.

Hang Tran:  How do women in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) balance their traditional role with the role of entrepeneur?

The evolution of the wPOWER project has really been around how to best build a body of evidence that makes the case for the central role that women must play in the clean energy value chain. If you’re going to make the transition — and hasten that transition so we are not talking about the same issues 60 years from now — what difference does it make if we have women at the centre?

The evidence is quite compelling: there is a lot of evidence out there that suggests, for example, that women — because they control the kitchen resources — are really the best people to transform the cooking fuels and cooking priorities for their families.

"Women can play a central role, and they must: not because it’s just a good thing to do, but because it makes business sense."
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It is also very clear that when women have income they invest the majority of their income back into their families and communities. And of course, when you are talking about poverty, it impacts women and children the most.

So this initiative was looking at an issue that women already respond to quite readily because it impacts their lives so intimately: often they are spending five hours a day collecting firewood — just imagine if five hours of your day was spent doing something that fundamental to your survival! You have three hours left to do everything else if you are trying to do it all in an eight-hour work day.

All of these issues coming together made the potential for women’s entrepreneurship in this sector quite persuasive. Women can play a central role, and they must: not because it’s just a good thing to do, but because it makes business sense.

Simon Hess:  I believe you originally come from East Africa, and as with many regions with LDCs, this is a region heavily reliant on agriculture for employment and the economy in general. What effect do you see from changing climatic conditions, and how will women in particular be impacted?

Climate is really impacting countries in the Global South who have agriculture that is largely dependent on rainfall, and regular rainfall at that. A lot of people in these regions depend on biomass for cooking and heating.

So, climate change intersects with energy security in new and unusual ways. We are seeing policymakers making a lot of strong statements about environmental considerations.

There is a big problem now in East Africa with deforestation and illegal logging, driven largely by fuels, especially charcoal, and of course the timber industry. But, the demand for charcoal continues to grow, and we have to start thinking of new ways to create the supply of charcoal that is needed, rather than simply saying we will do away with charcoal, which is impractical.

We have to think about how we create sustainable value chains with charcoal, and that can be done by allowing farmers to become entrepreneurs. In many countries entrepreneurship of this sort is encouraged, where farmers grow trees and they are competitively purchased, so it is a valuable business to be in. I think this sector is going to grow as climate change has a greater impact on the region.

We were told years ago that the Global South would be the most affected by climate change and have the fewest resources to cushion herself from the negative impacts of climate change: we are starting to see that now so I think people are standing up and paying more attention.

Hang Tran:  Why is access to energy  and renewable energy in particular  so important for people in developing countries, particularly for women?

I think it’s because we now know the impact it has on health, for example. We lose four million people a year to indoor air pollution complications. That alone should make us wake up and understand how women — and yes these are mainly women — cooking indoors and inhaling toxic fumes, and jeopardising their lives.

"For some women in LDCs it’s a matter of life and death."
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We need to look at the reality of women who are at the centre of this: even just the physical strain of carrying huge loads of biomass fuel so that they can save themselves another trip the following day. There are a lot of negative impacts, and I think health is one of the biggest ones: for some women in LDCs it’s a matter of life and death.

Portrait of a woman carrying firewood in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Simon Hess:  What more can we, as a community supporting countries to leverage trade for development do to better link into these environmental and entrepreneurial issues, and ensure that women in particular are adequately included in targeted interventions?

Organizations like the Green Belt Movement and grassroots movements and organizations that are working with women to restore degraded landscapes are already asking: how they scale their work so that women benefit? How to connect it to other sectors? How to make sure the environment and the economies benefit?

When these businesses, projects and movements are locally-owned and locally-led they are protected: people protect what they love, and they love what they are involved in doing and creating. So I think the key is more genuine partnerships with local-level initiatives and businesses that may not have the best-looking offices or infrastructure, or present the most beautiful reports, but are doing the heavy lifting on the ground.

Much of wPOWER’s work has been about building, consolidating and presenting the evidence and also trying to do more research to see what is missing in encouraging women’s entrepreneurship in renewable energy.

"There has got to be a concerted effort to make it possible for women’s businesses in renewable energy to scale up and succeed."
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One of the things that is definitely missing is this idea of scale: how do we scale a lot of amazing small-scale micro-energy projects. How do you move those to the big leagues?

A sector that inspires us quite a bit is the mobile telephone sector. It was unheard-of that Africa would be considered a hub for mobile technology, but there was a massive uptake of the technology which smashed several targets and projections.

The idea that you can leap and have a critical mass for adoption is the same pattern we are looking for with women’ entrepreneurship in renewables, and when we studied the mobile technology example, a lot of what it is about is whether or not the big players are entering the sector, and whether there enough value for them to enter the sector.

Hang Tran:  What would be the best way to inspire women entrepreneurs to venture into challenging sectors, such as renewable energy?

I think a partnership, a camaraderie, a network, women networking... hearing about other successes, challenges, failures. Really just creating a support system so that women have other women behind them, showing them what success looks like, and how to surmount some of the challenges they have. For a lot of women, entrepreneurship can be lonely.

Simon Hess:  Could you tell us a little more about how access to clean energy can help women start the process to adding value and engaging in trade?

There is a real need to support women entrepreneurs and women’s entrepreneurship in the sector of energy, and helping them set up viable businesses and connect to markets. This is not intuitive for everybody. For those who are interested in action it is about supporting early-stage businesses so that they create viable and sustainable opportunities.

Otherwise trade will never touch them and reach them. So there has got to be a concerted effort to make it possible for women’s businesses in renewable energy to scale up and succeed.

 

CREDITS: Header image by Photo by Pilar Valbuena, CIFOR/Flickr.