Eucharia Idoko knows the value of light through a solar power initiative by Solar Sister in Nigeria. The nonprofit works with women in Nigeria and Tanzania.
Katherine Lucey, a former investment banker with experience in installing solar power in school and health clinics in rural Uganda, co-founded Solar Sister in 2009. The nonprofit teaches the women how to sell and use solar-powered lights and other equipment, building their entrepreneurial skills and stoking their financial independence while bringing clean energy to close to 2 million people.
Because power in Nigeria’s Enugu State, where Idoko lives, is unpredictable and expensive, it can be dangerously dark at night. That is starting to change thanks to the inexpensive and easy-to-use solar-powered lanterns that Idoko sells through Solar Sister.
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In sub-Saharan Africa, just 28.1% of rural communities have access to electricity, according to data from the World Bank. There is also significant room for improvement in urban areas where just 77.9% of people have access to electricity. Lucey sees lighting up Africa as a way to bring more economic opportunity to the continent.
“Simple light changes everything in a household. It powers up productivity,” Lucey says. “Imagine being able to have a light so you are able to cook and serve your family dinner at night, or having a light that enables your children to study, or simply to allow you to see when you go to the latrine in the middle of the night to make sure you don’t step on a snake.”
Solar Sister also provides business coaching, which teaches entrepreneurs about clean energy technologies along with business skills like financial management, business planning and marketing. Solar Sister’s core curriculum also includes modules on empowerment, teaching women self-confidence, solution seeking, and agency.
The women build their businesses, usually by starting with friends and family, but most quickly gain new customers and a reputation by word of mouth and keep all the profits from their sales. Smaller ticket items, like lanterns, are cash only, while larger items, such as clean cookstoves, come with payment plans if the buyer isn’t able to pay upfront.
To date, Solar Sister has helped more than 6,000 women become entrepreneurs. But it has even bigger ambitions. The organisation hopes to train 10,000 women by 2023 and is actively exploring new markets in Africa. The key to their expansion plans is using data to help their entrepreneurs make better buying and selling decisions.
In January, data.org, an initiative led by founding partners the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and The Rockefeller Foundation, named Solar Sister as one of eight winners of a $10 million grant to use data to propel social impact projects. Solar Sister received $443,080.
Through this grant, Solar Sister is partnering with data science experts at Fraym to put data in the hands of Solar Sister entrepreneurs and field staff, which will enable them to maximise business outcomes and bring light, hope and opportunity to more people throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
For this project, Fraym will weave together hyper-local survey data, satellite imagery and points of interest data to build hyperlocal hotspot maps, which will indicate where ideal cash and credit consumers live. They will also generate data that Solar Sister field staff will use in order to more effectively recruit entrepreneurs.
The goal for entrepreneurs is increased sales, while for field staff it is more efficient and targeted entrepreneur recruitment and retention.
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As part of the project, Solar Sister is providing a pilot group of entrepreneurs with smartphones, which include these data-driven maps. This will be coupled with digital literacy training – teaching the entrepreneurs how to use data for the first time to make more strategic and evidence-based business decisions.
With this real-time data about her community, Solar Sister entrepreneurs like Idoko will be able to make more informed decisions about the market and see what consumer demand looks like at a neighbourhood level.
Lucey says moving forward, Solar Sister will continue to look for more ways to empower women through data and entrepreneurship, and to light up rural Africa. “We want to make sure that every sale is making an impact,” she says, “and that the women we are supporting as entrepreneurs are improving their lives.”