Decentralized sustainable energy technologies—both at the individual systems level, such as solar home systems, and at the mini-grid level servicing 50 to 100 households—are the cheapest solutions for energy access in an increasing number of locations. That’s the finding of a new report by the International Energy Agency.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has shown that the entire global economy by the end of the century could be decarbonized at low costs. But decentralized sustainable energy initiatives cannot only be designed by and for men and male entrepreneurs in developing countries. Women entrepreneurs in developing countries need to be welcomed into the cultural and financial systems, structures, and institutions that promote sustainable energy initiatives.
Across developing countries, women are typically the primary household energy managers. They also have more interpersonal interactions with other members of their communities than do men. Women entrepreneurs have a comparative advantage over male entrepreneurs in acquiring and serving female customers, yet women in developing countries have patterns of poor business execution. Why is that?
According to 2016 research by Glemarec, Bayat-Renoux & Waissbein, market transformation policies intended to reduce investment risks to accelerate energy access may not benefit men and women entrepreneurs equally. This is because of existing structural barriers that women face. Once we understand the dimensions of those barriers, we can begin to dismantle them.
Structural Barriers to Women Entrepreneurs in Developing Countries
Women entrepreneurs across developing countries face disproportionately more barriers relative to their male counterparts operating their businesses, particularly in terms of entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, financial management, and technical skills. Women also encounter patterns of non-compliance on contracts due to less access to justice to enforce remedial measures. They also face risk of violence, which restricts their personal movement and occupational choices.
The World Bank 2016 report on Women, Business, and the Law identified 155 countries out of 173 that have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities and 18 economies where husbands can prevent their wives from working. Exacerbated by debilitating social norms, gender-differentiated household tasks, male-on-female violence, restricted movement, and limited employment prospects, women entrepreneurs in developing countries face structural barriers to economic success.
Probably the most significant barrier to women’s entrepreneurship in developing countries is lack of ownership and control of land, which often is a pre-condition for access to finance and other productive assets. This is extremely important when women entrepreneurs attempt to develop clean renewable energy initiatives. Lack of land ownership will bar women entrepreneurs’ investments in renewable energy systems that require land, such as wind turbines and biofuel production.
Integrated and Discreet Attempts to Break Down Barriers
Interventions to initiate market transformation efforts toward gender-neutral participation in clean, renewable-energy startups begin by removing all key barriers and associated risks to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. Glemarec, Bayat-Renoux & Waissbein argue that market transformation efforts need to take place in an integrated yet discreet manner to address individual gender-driven barriers in isolation from other barriers. Examples of such transformation efforts as discrete objectives are to:
- Involve women entrepreneurs in energy planning and policy formulation, including in decision making, as a pre-condition for addressing these gender differentiated risks and improving their role as energy entrepreneurs.
- Conduct assessments and audits of gender specific risks and underlying barriers, which will be required to determine the needs and potential impacts of energy plans and policies on women.
- Translate women entrepreneurs’ specific needs into targeted policies to support women’s economic empowerment in the decentralized renewable energy sector.
- Coordinate energy policy making with policies for education, social protection, trade, industry, labor, land tenure reforms, civil registration, and access to justice to address gender specific risks.
- Allocate appropriate budgets toward implementation of energy plans and policies.
- Monitor and evaluate the different policy impacts for men and women to educate future market transformation efforts.
- Remove harmful social norms and practices affecting women entrepreneurs’ occupational choices.
- Improve women’s access to technical education, training, and information.
- Enhance women’s entrepreneurial skills through training on business plan development, procurement, marketing, financial management, legal frameworks, existing remedial recourse mechanisms in the case of contractual breaches, alternative supply chains, business models, and land titling arrangements.
- Promote safe and bias-free renewable energy working environments that attract, retain, and promote women.
- Create family friendly policies and child care as well as address workplace harassment and perceptions of women as “unfit or not suitable” for employment in engineering, technical, or business fields.
- Prevent violence against women by ensuring a safe and secure working environment for women professionals.
- Strengthen financial intermediation services to women entrepreneurs in general and sustainable energy entrepreneurs in particular.
Necessary Conversations about Clean Renewable Energy Initiatives
Tackling each of these discrete objectives seems like a huge endeavor. Yet each is absolutely necessary to remove barriers to women entrepreneurs in developing countries, especially so that women entrepreneurs can become part of clean renewable energy initiatives. Clearly, any transition to clean, decentralized sustainable energy requires multiple changes in the way that energy is provided in developing countries.
Instead of perceiving women as passive providers and users of energy, it is time to bring women entrepreneurs in developing countries into conversations and decisions about the role that decentralized renewable energy technologies will place in local communities. To reconfigure the role of women as active participants in the transition to sustainable energy will not only eliminate key barriers to decentralized energy deployment — it will create a healthier cultural and economic climate for women, their families, and their communities.
Embracing women entrepreneurs in developing countries as part of conversations about clean, decentralized energy will be only a starting point. What can come afterward will deeply impact poverty, climate change, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and global economic crises. Their contributions and leadership are central to finding solutions and to achieve the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that aim to end poverty, combat inequalities, and promote prosperity while protecting the environment by 2030. Concrete commitments that position gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment at the centre of the global agenda will make those objectives a reality.
Photo by CIFOR via Foter.com / CC BY-NC