Solar Sister - Empowering Women With Economic Opportunity

Solar Sister - Empowering Women With Economic Opportunity

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Solar Sister empowers women with economic opportunity and access to technology. Using an Avon-style business model for clean energy products, we combine the breakthrough potential of affordable solar energy with a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to communities in rural Africa.

1.6 billion people on the planet don’t have access to electricity. 70% are women and girls living in developing countries. They rely on kerosene lanterns and candles for light. They spend up to 40% of their family income on energy that is inefficient, insufficient and hazardous.

Solar Sister is bringing a new kind of clean energy revolution – one that is leveraged by women's social networks and the power of the marketplace.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Solar Sister works with women in rural communities in East Africa: Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. Energy poverty is pervasive, with only 5% of households having access to electricity. Most families are subsistence farmers, with income of less than $2 per day. Most of the women are first time entrepreneurs, eager for the opportunity to earn income to help support their families but needing support and training to thrive. Many are single mothers and this is the only source of income to provide for their children. Some are teachers or healthcare workers, supplementing incomes that are insufficient and sometimes irregular. Our primary beneficiaries are our entrepreneurs, so we are seamlessly embedded in our communities and are able to reach out broadly to bring access to renewable energy technology to their entire communities.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We are innovating the delivery system for clean energy technology to ensure adaptation where it matters most, energy poor households. Solar Sister is the only organization in the world exclusively committed to building a network of women solar entrepreneurs through a market based scalable program. It is the “Sister” in Solar Sister that makes the difference. It seems a simple thing, but deliberately reaching out to women to include them as active participants in the distribution of technology has profound impact. Not only does it create income for women who have few other cash earning opportunities, it is the most effective distribution method to reach rural homes. Women are the primary consumers of household energy, bearing responsibility for gathering wood or purchasing kerosene in energy poor communities, but they are rarely included in the technology conversation. In the past few years, great advances have been made in the technology and design of micro-solar products so they are both available and affordable alternatives to expensive, toxic, unsafe kerosene lanterns. But the lack of a distribution system that can reach into the rural villages where the technology is most needed, and the impact of a pervasive technology gender-gap means that this potentially life-changing technology is not being adapted at the household level, leaving families in the dark. By providing women with the opportunity to be active participants in the distribution of the new solar technology, we activate a powerful network of women’s relationships to maximize impact.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

The most important step to ending poverty is to create employment and income opportunities. Solar Sister does just that by providing opportunity for women to become solar entrepreneurs. We deliberately focus on women because not only are they overlooked in terms of economic opportunity, but they are also the primary drivers of technology adaptation in the household - by intentionally reaching out to women, we create economic opportunity and create employment as well as direct our marketing and outreach to the primary consumers of household energy. We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do. Solar Sister provides the women with a ‘business in a bag’, a start-up kit of inventory , training and marketing support ( like Solar Sister branded ID, flyers, stickers, posters, t-shirts, business bag, ledgers for Solar Sister entrepreneurs to keep sales record,support for community launch events to showcase the products at high visibility locations). The women become their own bosses, creating sustainable businesses. The women use their natural networks of family, friends and neighbors to provide the most effective distribution channel to rural and hard-to-reach customers. Leveraging the power of the market place, a Solar Sister Entrepreneur creates a chain reaction of social impact as she turns over her inventory again and again. The key to Solar Sister model lies in the self-sustaining economics of its distribution program. Using the power of the market to leverage impact, each and every dollar invested in a Solar Sister Entrepreneur generates over $46 in economic benefits in the first year alone, through earned income for the Solar Sister Entrepreneur and the immediate cash savings of her customers as they avoid the cost of expensive kerosene. Solar lamps replace the toxic kerosene lanterns and solar cell phone chargers provide connectivity in even the most energy poor communities. Solar Sister provides women with business training and technical skills they need to make their micro-business thrive. As they grow in their skills and confidence, they become change agents in their communities, sharing their skills and knowledge and becoming ‘evangelists’ for the new technology. The key to our success is combining the women's social capital with financial capital to create a distribution network for renewable technology solutions. Building impact driven innovative Public-Private-People partnerships is at the heart of Solar Sister's approach. On the demand side, we maximize our impact and deliver the greatest opportunity to the entrepreneurs and their customers. On the supply side, we have both hybrid and diversified value chain whereby we work with a basket of most innovative, high quality suppliers that provide most bang for Solar Sister buck. We see Solar Sister as a combination of a Avon Model ( benefiting from the powerful connections of women's social networks and highly personalized sales), Best Buy ( providing choice to customer through best products and brands from a trusted source who provides the best price ) and and an eBay (using ICT to revolutionize our supply chain and achieve operational excellence). These market linkages are integral to Solar Sister philosophy. We bring important value to the manufacturers as our role at the very end of the supply chain extends and broadens their reach and provides immediate feedback on the market uptake of products. In doing so, we are building the market for clean energy solutions for the poor end-to-end : right from inventors and manufacturers to users. Solar Sister's range of products presently includes: solar lights, solar lights with phone chargers, solar phone chargers, solar radios, solar flash lights ( torches), solar home systems with multiple lights and the ability to charge larger 12 volt batteries that can power radios/small appliances...the list continue to grow as we develop new relationships with new suppliers and our current suppliers add new products. This is a fast developing space in 'base of the pyramid' design. We will be adding clean cookstoves (solar as well as efficient wood/charcoal) in the future as this is also an important household utility that benefits from clean energy technology and are talking with various suppliers to determine our best match for quality, durability, customer demand and affordability.
About You
Solar Sister, Inc.
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name

Solar Sister, Inc.

Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Katherine Lucey started at the other end of the world from the women in rural Africa. She worked on Wall Street, financing billion dollar power plants to provide energy for economic growth. But despite massive investment in infrastructure projects, the problem of energy poverty persisted. Katherine left banking and turned to finding a grassroots solution to the global problem of energy poverty.

Working with communities in rural Africa to provide them with solar power, Katherine began to talk to the women and try to include them in the project. It became clear that if the women had access to the technology, they could improve the lives of their families. For example, when asked where solar light should go in her home, Rebecca overrode her husband and directed the light to be put in the chicken room. She knew that chickens eat more if they can see. Healthier chickens lay more eggs. Eggs can be sold at market to make money for seeds, to grow vegetables to sell and buy a cow, goats, pigs. Rebecca built a productive farm, and eventually a school. Rebecca is a wonderful example of what can happen when you combine a little light with a woman's ingenuity. Katherine was inspired to help many more women like Rebecca build a better life for themselves through an innovative application of the direct selling model used by some of the largest cosmetic companies in the world.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Solar Sister is an impact driven social enterprise. As a market-based program, economic benefits of the program are directly measurable through systemized data collection on the number of Solar Sister entrepreneurs; sales generated, total beneficiaries, green house gas (GHG) emissions mitigated and total kerosene use displaced by the use of solar lamps and complimentary services like mobile phone charging.

These hard numbers are supplemented with qualitative interviews with our grassroots partners, women entrepreneurs and their customers to monitor the overall impact of the program as well as the success or failure of individual Entrepreneurs to improve our processes where needed.

In our first year of operations, we have employed over 100 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs in ten communities in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. We have established a recruiting and training program that gives women a fast track to economic empowerment. These women have sold solar lamps to benefit 4,360 people.

While statistics are an important measure of our success, it is the individual stories of women behind the numbers who are our most important achievements. For example, Grace Wakodo became a Solar Sister to supplement the family income. Her husband is a counselor to AIDS patients, earning $250 per year in addition to housing on the hospital campus. Grace and her husband care for 10 children, four of their own and six nieces and nephews that were left in their care when her husband’s brothers died of AIDS. The money Grace earns as a Solar Sister Entrepreneur has doubled the family income and helps pay school fees for the children and better food for the table.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001- 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

Our aim is to empower 5000 Solar Sister entrepreneurs in 5 African countries in 5 years, bringing solar energy to more than 2.5 million Africans while displacing 137 million liters of kerosene use and mitigating 375000 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide emissions. In three years time we will have established the foundation for this goal by deepening our reach in the three countries we are presently operating in and establishing a base in two new countries.

A substantial investment in growth of operations through public and private donations will help us achieve both scale that will provide break-even profitability and meaningful impact. Over time, the philanthropic support will be replaced by increasing earned income from operations, with a goal of becoming fully sustainable from operations.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Solar Sister program has been growing strong since we launched our successful pilot program in 2010. As we scale our operations, our efforts are to put the experience gained so far to standardize our recruitment, training and incentive structures for a wider Solar Sister network. Often, communities are used to NGO give-aways and we have to ensure a shift from this mindset to ensure that Solar Sister is perceived as a true “business opportunity”.

It takes patience and persistence to bring a new way of doing things to a community. There are ‘early adopters’ who immediately get the program, and there are traditionalists who resist the change that the program represents. We are learning that providing access to economic opportunity means providing it with an open hand, and letting women participate at their own level of engagement. We are building incentive structures to reward and encourage high performers who can benefit from increased earnings while inspiring and recruiting other motivated women in the program.

One important lesson we have learnt is the need to create systems that are both effective and efficient. Early on, we were relying on our partners to track data for the women in the program that they were responsible for, but we have found that differences in format and level of detail meant that the collected data did not provide the level of accuracy we were looking for. We have now consolidated all of the tracking and our own staff is responsible for maintaining the records. As a result, we are able to discern which Entrepreneurs are finding more success and investigate the reasons for their positive deviance as well as track when an Entrepreneur is not successful and find ways to support her. We also plan to develop a robust IT enabled sales and inventory management system that will provide operational support to our growing network.

Tell us about your partnerships

Solar Sister is building an ecosystem of innovative Public-Private-People partnerships which are at the heart of our approach to bring a systems change to global energy poverty. We have established relationships with partner organizations, both on the ground with implementation partners, with inventors, technology providers and institutional partners, with funders and social impact investors as well as with everyday changemakers committed to addressing the extreme global energy poverty. At the grassroots level, Solar Sister partners with local women’s groups to benefit from their existing infrastructure and deep roots in the community. One of our key initial partnerships is with The Mother’s Union of Uganda, which has been providing family support services for over 100 years in over 60,000 rural communities in Uganda. The Mother’s Union Family Life program is working closely with Solar Sister to provide access to affordable solar lamps through ‘merry-go-round’ purchase groups. Our other partners include Women of Kireka, Aliat Uganda, Women for Women, and Maranatha Schools.

Our technology partners are leaders in the area of portable solar solutions for offgrid markets. These include the World Bank and International Financial Corporation’s Lighting Africa Award Winners D.Light and Barefoot Power; SunNight Solar, Angaza Design, PiSat Solar, Nokero and LifeLine Energy. Solar Sister’s role as a last mile distribution channel to the Bottom of the Pyramid market with a women-centric focus is unique and valued by the manufacturers. We are able to provide product specific feedback that can help them design their products.

Our most important partners are the Solar Sister Entrepreneurs. They are the secret sauce of Solar Sister's success. It is their energy, ingenuity, passion and desire to succeed that powers our growth. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, when the individual Entrepreneurs succeed, Solar Sister succeeds. The women invest their sweat equity and social capital into their businesses while we provide the access to technology and business support.

We have ongoing discussions for collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation to integrate clean energy and gender issues in their conservation efforts. We are also in dialogue to compliment our training and capacity building programs in association with the Global Village Energy Partnership's Developing Energy Enterprises Project (DEEP) in East Africa and with the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) which has empowered millions of women and girls with the conviction that " when women move forward, the world moves forward". CEDPA is a partner of ExxonMobil's Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative which also supports Solar Sister. We were an Early Entry Prize Winner in Women | Tools | Technology: Building Opportunities & Economic Power Competition in 2010. The ensuing partnership with Ashoka Changemakers and ExxonMobil Foundation has proved to be a great catalyst in Solar Sister's evolution as a growing high impact social enterprise since then and we hope to continue building on these vital opportunities to learn and grow as a social enterprise. Solar Sister's Program Coordinator in Uganda will be participating in CEDPA's Exxon Mobil supported intensive women’s leadership and management workshop titled Global Women in Management: Advancing Women’s Economic Opportunities in Abuja, Nigeria from August 1 – 26 while our Director of Programs and Development ( also our Chief of Collaborations!) will be training participants from around the world at CEDPA's Women's Management Leadership program in Washington,D.C. through Solar Sister's case study.

Education and Outreach is a key component of our work. Solar Sister joined hands with the Earth Day Network to engage and educate over 100 young environmentalists from around the U.S about the role of women in building a clean energy economy at Powershift 2011. We have partnered with the Alliance for Rural Electrification to increase awareness about the huge gender dimension of energy poverty. We are a partner of Invent for Humanity, Center for Applied Innovation's Technology Transfer Exchange Fair. Solar Sister Founder and CEO Katherine Lucey serves on both the Gender and Empowerment Coordinating Committee and the Reaching Consumers Committee of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Katherine has also been selected to participate in the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI)2011, a program developed by Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society to assist leading social benefit entrepreneurs. Solar Sister is a Non-Profit partner of 1% for the Planet , a growing global alliance of businesses financially committed to creating a healthy planet. Most recently, Katherine participated in a panel discussion about solutions to energy poverty at the opening of a photo exhibit "Life Without Light" by photographer Peter DiCampo that brought together a cross-section of people from the photography, social enterprise, humanitarian, academic and energy worlds.

Being an Early Entry Prize Winner in this competition has opened new doors of partnership for Solar Sister. We have been introduced to new partners and collaborators as a result of the exposure of our entry, including additional product partners to add clean cookstoves to the Solar Sister Entrepreneurs' portfolio of products in their business in a bag and a carbon finance consolidator to work with to capture and monetize the carbon credits. We have had preliminary discussions with Ashoka and Canopus Foundation's ‘Solar for All’ (SfA) Initiative which has adopted as its goal the objective of bringing affordable solar power to 60 million off-grid households by 2020.

Explain your selections

Solar Sister has received grants from Social Venture Partners Rhode Island ($20,000) and ExxonMobil Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative ($200,000 total = $100,000 per year for two years). These grants are provided to support the scale up of the Solar Sister distribution program in Uganda in 2011 and replicate it in a country in West Africa in 2012. Our other sources of support include Contribution from Network Sales( $36,375), in-kind contributions ( $60,060) and Other Contributions ( $15,584).

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

Solar Sister is building a sustainable business that will generate sufficient earned income to support ongoing operations at a scale that can deliver real impact across sub-Saharan Africa. Looking out over three years, we will continue to build our network in East Africa by establishing teams supported by our local staff and adding Regional Coordinators to provide a high level of support and accountability. Next year, with the support of a grant from ExxonMobil, we are replicating the program in West Africa, and will establish a hub of operations there to build out the program. Financing for growth will require investment in capacity for recruiting, training, supporting and managing the Entrepreneurs as well as an investment in the monitoring and evaluation systems and working capital needs.

To establish a single Entrepreneur requires an investment of approximately $500 comprising $200 of one time costs including recruiting costs, training, marketing and sales support and approximately $300 of investment in inventory, which is turned over again and again, generating earned income from sales. The Entrepreneur returns the investment in one-time costs within one year, and thereafter generates returns of $365 per annum to support the working capital costs and a contribution to overhead and further growth. The financial contribution of each individual Solar Sister Entrepreneur is multiplied as we scale the program, enabling us to achieve overall financial break-even when we achieve scale. Investment in growth of operations will help Solar Sister achieve both scale and impact

Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.


Restrictive cultural norms


Lack of skills/training



Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

Solar Sister closes the gender-based technology gap that prevents women from being full participants in the economic solution to energy poverty. By deliberately including women in the distribution of solar technology, we break through cultural barriers. Rather than treat women solely as passive consumers, we engage them as active income earners and change agents for their communities. We provide training to education to increase their knowledge of the technology and their business skills. As a result, the women become leaders in their homes and their communities. Our network provides much needed employment opportunity for women. Our entrepreneurs include single mothers, teachers, healthcare workers and college graduates who are seeking cash income to provide for their families.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.



Grown geographic reach: Multi-country


Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Solar Sister is a network of women entrepreneurs. One of the features of building a network is the flexibility to scale operations. We have developed a recruiting/training/support program that allows us to expand our operations into new communities efficiently and effectively. We are currently operating in 10 communities in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. For the immediate future we plan to build the network within these countries to reach greater market coverage. In the next year we will replicate the program in West Africa.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

Solar Sister works with technology providers on the supply side, including d.light, Barefoot Power and PiSat Solar. These partnerships give us access to cutting edge technology designed for the Bottom of the Pyramid customer. Working with them allows us to focus on the distribution challenges.

We have benefited from collaboration with Academia/universities. This past Spring we hosted a team of students from Thunderbird Management School in Arizona for their capstone consulting class. They worked closely with our staff in Uganda and produced a robust methodology for improving our recruiting and training procedures. We also worked with a team from Babson College that focused on developing a program to engage University students in Solar Sister's mission in a meaningful way.