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Solar Sister: Providing Light and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa

Deciding to climb Africa’s highest mountain is no minor decision and it was a goal of mine for over 15 years. I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since my father scaled it in 2000, months before my wedding. Every time I thought of planning a climb, the timing just didn’t seem to work out and I kept pushing my dream further back on my “to do” list. Deep down inside, I was also a bit concerned about the altitude. I had been to almost 19,000 feet in Nepal and it was grueling. How would I feel even higher? 

All my doubts disappeared when I climbed two peaks in a row in Bolivia without any issues and realized my body was ready. Kilimanjaro was back on the list yet I needed to find someone willing to go.

A few months later, I received a call from a good friend of mine in Rhode Island who shared the exciting news. A small non-profit organization called Solar Sister was putting together a multi-generational, international team to climb Kilimanjaro in honor of bringing light to Africa. It felt like fate.

Without knowing a soul at Solar Sister, I joined their team of climbers and signed up to raise $4,000 to train 8 new Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and to celebrate Solar Sister’s five-year anniversary since its founding. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made, and I had an incredible trip. Perhaps what was even more inspiring than climbing Kilimanjaro itself was the group of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing solar electricity to Africa. The team at Solar Sister.

During our climb, I had the pleasure of learning about the inspiration behind Solar Sister and why their model of social entrepreneurship is thriving. I found their story so inspiring that I wanted to share it and introduce you to Solar Sister. Here is their story.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot of the Solar Sister climbers.

The statistics are astounding. Today, 1.6 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity – one-quarter of the world’s population. Can you imagine a life without electricity? How would you do anything after the sun sets and how would you keep your family safe at night? Even worse, 70% of the people without light are women and girls who must rely on harmful and expensive kerosene lanterns and candles. Without light, they are at greater risk of physical and sexual violence as they walk through dark, rural areas. Other critical things such as health care and education suffers as women are unable to deliver safely in the dark and children cannot study once the sun goes down. Life without electricity is unimaginable. 

But the future is very bright. “Advances in portable clean-energy technology like solar, clean cookstoves, and mobile charging mean we already have the technologies required to leapfrog from the age of archaic kerosene cans to that of sustainable energy for all” says Katherine Lucey, Founder of Solar Sister.  “We also have the tremendous power of women’s networks and ingenuity to light up the world. Women and girls may be the most affected by the problem, but they are also the most effective at forging a solution“. This is the premise behind the start of Solar Sister. 

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Katherine Lucey has always understood the power of electricity. Having worked on Wall Street as an investment banker in the energy sector for over 20 years, Katherine gained critical expertise in the field.  It was a cut throat, competitive business in which Katherine thrived. Yet part of her wanted to use her expertise for making the world a better place. As a mother of five and a woman driven with energy and passion, Katherine left the banking industry and began working with a local solar energy company. It was during a trip to rural Uganda (where only 5% of the people have access to electricity) that Katherine had an inspirational moment that would change her life forever.

In the isolated Mpigi district of Uganda, Katherine met a woman farmer named Rebecca. Three solar lights were provided to Rebecca and her family. While her husband wanted to put the lights in certain places, it was actually Rebecca who understood best where the lights should go. Rebecca convinced her husband that a light should be placed in the chicken’s coop because the chicken would not eat at night in the dark. By moving the light from their home to the chicken coop, the chickens thrived. They laid more eggs which provided more income for Rebecca and her family. Rebecca used the extra income to reinvest in building a garden which eventually grew larger and ten years later she is one of the most successful women in her village.

Rebecca showed Katherine just what extraordinary potential there is in the women of Africa. From the simple improvement of a single light, she built a profitable farm and improved her own family’s standard of living. Katherine realized that women are critical in lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. Women know what they want and know what to do to improve their lives. To not have them part of the conversation just really didn’t make any sense.

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Katherine Lucey showcasing a solar light.

Katherine returned to the United States more inspired than ever to start something new. Why not have women entrepreneurs who make decisions and  are empowered by running their own business? Katherine wondered. 

She contacted Neha Misra, another powerhouse in the energy field and together they founded Solar Sister in 2010. Although it was difficult at first, starting an entire non-profit organization from scratch with no salary to rely on, five years later Katherine’s dream did not only survive, it is thriving. Today, Solar Sister has over 2,000 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs operating in three countries – Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria, and has greatly improved the lives of thousands.

A Solar Sister Entrepreneur demonstrates a light. Photo credit: Solar Sister

A Solar Sister Entrepreneur demonstrates a light. Photo credit: Solar Sister

How it works is simple. Solar Sister employs a market-based solution with a product that can be easily obtained by the end-user through a locally generated, grassroots distribution system, not that different from an Avon or Mary Kay structure. By tapping into the power of the strong local social networks of women, women in the communities become Solar Sister Entrepreneurs each in charge of their own business of distributing small, inexpensive sources of solar light.  Each entrepreneur provides income for themselves and light for their communities, selling portable products ranging from very affordable light-only units to larger ones with additional features including cooking and cell phone charging capabilities.

Here is a short YouTube Video on Solar Sister: A Bright Solution

The impact has been profound.

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And the impact for future generations will be even brighter.

Children who benefit from Solar Sister's lights. Photo credit: Solar Sister

Children who benefit from Solar Sister’s lights. Photo credit: Solar Sister

Solar Sister provides training, access to products, and handles logistics, allowing each entrepreneur to begin making money on day one. It costs about $500 to launch an entrepreneur on her way to self-reliance.

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What a feeling of accomplishment to know that every single one of us made it to the top to bring light to Africa! A moment I will never forget.

Solar Sister Summit Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Our group sporting our new Solar Sister Summit t-shirts at Machame Gate

After the climb, the Solar Sister staff and board members did a site visit in rural Tanzania.

After the climb, the Solar Sister staff and board members did a site visit in rural Tanzania.

To learn more about Solar Sister, click here.

Worth a read:

“When Women Power the World” via Medium

“Meet Neha Misra – The Avon Lady of Solar Power” via Forbes

“Bill Clinton Highlights Solar Sister in Inside Impact Film”

 

 

14 comments

  1. Pingback: Solar Sister: Providing Light and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa | Gay Guide To Asia & Cambodia

  2. It seems that most of the truly worthwhile projects in the world are being carried out at the grass roots level and not by governments or big companies who miss the mark of what’s really needed and end up wasting millions of dollars and lots of time. Thanks for keeping us informed.

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