Solar sisters: how green energy is empowering women in remote communities

Women often benefit most from internet access but millions of homes lack reliable power. We meet those leapfrogging into the digital age thanks to clean energy

In a remote village in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Madhu Kumar sits outside a small thatched house, talking to a group of other women. At first sight, it’s the most traditional of scenes. Sari-clad villagers pass the time while their children play cricket with makeshift bats and balls on the dusty ground. A cow wanders slowly between the houses.

But come closer, and you’ll see something at once familiar and, in this context, revolutionary. Kumar is making notes on an iPad. It’s been charged from a solar panel on her roof, and she’s using it to jot down orders for solar lights. She is a ‘solar saheli’ (solar friend) – a sales agent for Frontier Markets, a local business set up by entrepreneur Ajaita Shah, that sells a range of such technology across the state.

Access to computers and the internet is offering women, like those in Pakistan’s Chitral district, ‘a window to the world’

Clean, bright solar lights are life-changing for villagers who, until now, had to make do with the smoky, dim glow of kerosene lanterns. But it’s not just about light to see by. Kumar is part of a revolution that is sweeping quietly across much of rural Asia and Africa. It is one that harnesses locally sourced renewable energy – like solar or small-scale hydro – to bring digital connectivity into people’s homes. And it is women, often confined to their communities by conservative cultural norms, who benefit the most.

Kumar is pioneering a new role as an ‘internet saheli’. “I help show women how they can use the internet to look up remedies for a sick child,” she tells me, “or buy bus tickets, or start up a new business on their own, like dressmaking.”

I help show women how they can use the internet to look up remedies for a sick child or start up a new business on their own

In Pakistan’s Chitral district, high in the Hindu Kush mountains near the Afghan border, small hydro plants run by local NGO the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), provide power for a whole range of purposes, including phone lines and computers in community centres. Women are learning IT skills and starting tailoring businesses, and enjoying the simple pleasure of having a window to the world. “We know about national and international affairs now,” said one. “Before, we knew nothing.”

Accessing the web doesn’t just ease a sense of isolation; it also helps give remote villagers the prospect of a viable future. Without this, many see no alternative but to migrate to distant city slums in search of a living.

As one Chitrali puts it: “People leave because they want a better quality of life. But with electricity, that life can come to us. Our valley is beautiful. We don’t want to leave. Electricity helps us stay.”

Madhu Kumar is a ‘solar saheli’ (solar friend) and sales agent for a local tech retailer

Frontier Markets and SRSP are winners of an Ashden Award for sustainable energy, which recognises schemes that tackle climate change while also lifting people out of poverty. Martin Wright is part of the Ashden Awards visiting judging team.

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Images: Martin Wright