Empower women to start and run energy products' enterprises

An excited lady shows her friend a business opportunity on her phone. [Getty Images]

Inequality, specifically gender inequality in Kenya, is entrenched and systemic and needs individual and collective action to roll back. Less than 0.1 per cent of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9 per cent, and women bear the brunt of this, according to Oxfam.In energy, a critical sector for advancing economic growth, women are still underrepresented in the energy product and service supply chain. 66.7 per cent of the population still use unclean cooking fuel, according to the 2019 census.

Gender inequalities are strongly connected to limited access to opportunities. On entrepreneurship, women face a number of constraints, the immediate one being starting and expanding a business. Other challenges include accessing credit, navigating emerging markets, accessing capacity building opportunities. All these are underpinned by patriarchal attitudes and norms, expectations around reproductive/domestic work, and concentration of power in the hands of (older) men.

In view of this, what role can enablers such as non-profit organisations, incubators, or accelerators, play to promote the development of women-owned enterprises and strengthening them to achieve growth?

Different actors, including Practical Action, are accelerating efforts to address gender inequality. Offering technical assistance, skills improvement and financial support (extending credit and de-risking entrepreneurs), its Women in Energy Enterprises in Kenya (WEEK) initiative has directly helped women entrepreneurs and impacted 1.9 million people in Western and Nyanza regions.

Over the last three years, women-owned enterprises have grown in the sustainable energy value chains of solar, improved cook-stoves, briquettes and productive use of energy.

Growth has been indicative through increase in incomes (20 per cent), accessed finance from savings and loans groups (78 per cent) expanded markets (40 per cent), business registration (92 per cent) and proper record keeping (89 per cent).

It is important to recognise the social and cultural achievements of women as a result of this initiative. First, there has been improved gender relations at the household level. Women have reported greater support from spouses in sharing domestic chores and of their enterprises.

Secondly, business skilling is having a positive effect. Women entrepreneurs are taking up leadership roles in the community. For example, Mildren Shihafu, an energy entrepreneur from Kakamega County, has been selected as a local chief because of her improved agency in articulating solutions to the challenges affecting her community, especially on promoting access to clean energy.

We draw some critical lessons in engaging women in energy enterprises. First, aggregation is a key factor when working with financial institutions and suppliers/distributors. Practical Action aggregated demand for energy products, which enabled price/cost negotiations with larger institutions.

Access to finance is still a big challenge. Financial institutions are not lending to women entrepreneurs fast enough. While requirements for financing such as collateral continue to lock women out in the context of group lending, this perception is changing because groups value social collateral as security for poor households.

An enabling policy and market environment is a strong factor in strengthening women entrepreneurs’ capacity. At the national level, we now have gender policy for the energy sector, while in Migori, the county assembly has passed the Climate Change policy, both of which seek opportunities for women to actively engage as suppliers and decision makers in the energy sector. Collaborating with Kisumu County, the initiative has realised interest free loans women’s energy businesses, expanded market opportunities and enhanced visibility for women energy entrepreneurs. Partnerships with energy distributors catalysed skilling and transition from retailers to distributors of energy products.

The collective efforts made it possible for women to thrive, and the impact to the community is evident. This demonstrates the opportunities communities can reap if we all join hands to ensure equitable societies.

Ms Onyango works for Practical Action