Written by Dianne Molvig Friday, August 12 2011
Snapshot: Katherine Lucey, CEO, Solar Sister
When you step off a plane after landing in Uganda, you promptly notice a burning smell in the air, notes Katherine Lucey, founder and CEO of Solar Sister. That smell, she explains, results from the fact that 95 percent of the people in Uganda, population 32 million, have no access to electricity. So they burn fuels such as wood and kerosene for cooking and light.
Kerosene lamps are a major lighting source in undeveloped countries. As a consequence, nearly 800 million women and children breathe kerosene fumes, each inhaling the equivalent of smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day, according to Solar Sister. What’s more, burning kerosene releases 190 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere annually, equal to the emissions from 30 million cars.
Lucey, a former New York City investment banker, is a champion for a healthier, more sustainable alternative: solar lamps. But Solar Sister, a nonprofit organization based in Bristol, R.I., does more than provide light from a renewable resource. It’s also creating business opportunities for poor rural women in Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan.
Womenetics: How does a former investment banker end up advancing solar technology in Africa?
Katherine Lucey: I was in investment banking for 20 years, where I eventually moved over to the energy sector. I was a project finance banker doing big power plants and that kind of thing. That’s where I got my background in electricity.
When I left banking, I wanted to do something more philanthropic at a grass-roots level. I joined the board of Solar Light for Africa, a not-for-profit group that brings solar energy to rural communities in East Africa. I was also the executive director there for a year, and I’m still on the board.
Womenetics: Why is it so important to bring electricity to Africa?
Lucey: I’ve seen lives transformed by having electricity. Take, for example, the first woman who had Solar Light for Africa install electricity in her family’s home. They put light in the main room, and she also wanted light in her chicken room. The reason was that she knew chickens only eat when they can see. By giving them four more hours of light every night, they ate more, got healthier, and laid more eggs. She made more money. She sold eggs and bought seeds to grow vegetables. She sold vegetables and bought a goat. She sold goat milk and bought a cow. It’s like the house that Jack built. Then she built a school where children in the area learn to read and write and how to do sustainable farming. In the evenings, she has a literacy class for women. All that came from the investment in installing a single light.
|Lights transform lives|
Womenetics: Why did you start your own solar organization?
Lucey: I saw that there was a gap. We’d go into a village and bring in our solar panels, wires, batteries, inverters, and so on, and the men and children would gather around. But the women would be off tending to their household duties. After we’d installed the technology and left the village, the time would come when the panels needed cleaning. Guess who’s going to do that? But the women weren’t comfortable touching the technology because they weren’t sure if it was fragile or might shock them.
And yet it’s the women who most need to be comfortable with the technology. They’re the ones in charge of the household utilities. They fetch the wood or charcoal and buy the kerosene. The utilities are all part of the woman’s responsibility. She is the customer.
|It works like Avon works|
We needed to close that gap between women and technology. That was really the seed of Solar Sister. I felt by being a woman in this business I could bring a different vision and connect with the customer in a different way.
Womenetics: How does Solar Sister work?
Lucey: It’s much like Avon or Pampered Chef. The women may be teachers or health care workers who become Solar Sister entrepreneurs to earn a little extra income. For other women, this is their income. They’re responsible for many other things in their lives: their children, parents, farms, and gardens. So this is work they can do to earn cash while fitting in those other responsibilities. Each woman gets a startup kit that includes inventory, training materials, and marketing support.
|The power to change|
What the women bring is their social capital – their families, friends, and community networks. These are incredibly effective marketing channels, and the women come up with marketing strategies I wouldn’t have imagined. They might make it a challenge, such as, “My son will do better in school than your son because he has light to study at night.” It’s fun to watch them take this opportunity and run with it.
Womenetics: What type of solar technology are the Solar Sister entrepreneurs selling?
Lucey: A few years ago, designers started to develop microsolar devices. One of these is the solar lamp, which is extremely durable and well suited to the environment in African villages. The lamps also are affordable, producing the same amount of light as the solar systems we were installing years ago, but at about one-tenth the cost. Buying kerosene consumes about 30 percent of these families’ incomes. A solar lamp, which costs about $20, replaces the need for that expense. It pays for itself in a couple of months.
|More than a lamp|
Womenetics: How many women participate?
Lucey: Our first Solar Sister entrepreneurs started in April 2010. There are now about 110 of them in Uganda, South Sudan, and Rwanda, and that number is growing. Our program coordinator is a Ugandan woman who is just fantastic. We have a total of three staff in Uganda, so this is very much a locally run program. Then my chief collaboration officer, Neha Misra, who’s amazingly gifted at forming partnerships and connections, is in Washington, D.C. She and I are volunteers with no salaries at this stage.
Womenetics: How would you sum up the impact of Solar Sister?
Lucey: It’s the “give someone a fish versus teach someone to fish” story. It takes $500 to set up a woman in her business. From that she can generate income that increases her family’s income year after year. So this approach has a much bigger effect than simply giving a woman a lamp.
Dianne Molvig is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer who writes regularly about business management, financial services, law practice, consumer education, and other topics.