SOLAR SISTER - Creating a woman-powered distribution system for solar technology

SOLAR SISTER - Creating a woman-powered distribution system for solar technology

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 improves women’s lives by providing light, hope, opportunity. Solar Sister is a woman-to-woman direct-sales distribution system for solar lanterns that is based on women’s natural networks of family, friends and community and brings the solar technology right to the women’s doorstep. Solar light enhances education, improves health and safety and provides economic opportunity.

About You
Solar SIster, Inc.
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


Organization Name

Solar SIster, Inc.

Organization Phone


Organization Address

P. O. Box 1002 Bristol, RI 02809

Organization Country

, RI

How long has this organization been operating?

Less than a year

Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your innovation unique?

It is the “Sister” in Solar Sister that is unique. The best way to create access to technology for rural women is through their natural networks of friends, family and community, harnessing the trust and strength of sisterhood.

Go into any schoolyard with a geeky technological gadget, and I guarantee that you will be surrounded by a jostling circle of boys wanting to see it, try it out, take it apart and see how it works. This is as true in New York City as it is in Kampala. It’s not that girls don’t have the smarts to understand technology, it’s just that the cultural and educational bias has been to exclude them and keep them on the other side of a persistent and pervasive technology gender-gap. If women and girls are not intentionally included in technology advances, then they are unintentionally excluded.

In rural Africa, the technology gender-gap is even wider, and has devastating consequences as girls miss out on education and opportunity because they do not have access to simple technological solutions to their everyday burdens.

Without adequate light, girls miss out on study time, as they normally attend to domestic chores after school, unlike their brothers who do their school assignments immediately when they get home from school, so the girls fall behind in school and are more likely to drop out. Without adequate light, women are hampered in their ability to care and provide for their families as they struggle to cook dinner by the poor light of tadoobas, and spend too much of their time and the family’s income on gathering fuel.

Solar Sister improves women’s lives by providing access to solar technology in an accessible by-women, for-women, to-women program. Solar Sister closes the gender-based technology gap by deliberately reaching out to women and girls to teach them about solar technology and give them the opportunity to be participants in bringing that technology to their communities.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

Tell us about the social impact of your innovation. Please include both numbers and stories as evidence of this impact

Imagine: you are a young girl living in a rural village in Africa. You dream of doing well on your exams so that you can continue your studies at a well regarded secondary school. But, by the time you have finished your chores, had dinner, and helped clean up the dishes, it is dark. You try to study by the light of the tadooba, but it the smoke burns your eyes and makes you cough. You remember the time you were too absorbed in your work and accidentally knocked the lamp over, spilling the oil and burning your hand. You rub the scar and turn out the light, leaving the studies for a day when you will have more time...

Imagine: you are a mother with a day too full of caring for children, tending a garden, preparing the meals, walking to market. At the market, you have to choose between buying meat for dinner, or kerosene for the lantern…

Imagine: you are a nurse in a rural clinic, tending to a small child that requires a blood transfusion due to severe anemia, but your lantern has burned out and you can not see to find the child’s tiny vein…

Over 300 million women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have to imagine these scenarios, this is their reality. Energy poverty negatively impacts the education, productivity, health and safety of 1.6 billion people in the developing world, 70% of whom are women and girls. Even with the recent technology advances that makes clean solar electricity affordable to the poor, there has not been widespread distribution and adaptation in rural communities.

Solar technology can transform rural lives. Availability, affordability and access all work together to bring light into rural homes. Solar Sister closes the gap between the producer and the end user by creating a woman-to-woman distribution system. We have launched our pilot phase in the Kapchorwa district of Uganda. We have chosen the three villages and a Girls Secondary school for our pilot program and have established the relationships with the women leaders in the district. Solar Sister Associates have been chosen to pilot the direct-sales distribution program. As the women sell solar lanterns, they earn independent income and become changemakers by bringing access to life-transforming solar light to their families and communities.

The initial Solar Sisters have had immediate and sustained success selling the lanterns within their communities. The value of the distribution system is immediate and rewarding to the women and their families, as they earn income to support children's school fees and other expenses, as well as to their communities as they bring access to light and phone charging capabilities to their neighbors.

Problem: Describe the primary problem(s) that your innovation is addressing

The technology exists to eliminate the unsafe, toxic tadooba and provide clean, affordable, solar light for individual homes. Just in the past few years, significant advances in technology have produced solar lanterns that provide excellent light, are durable, and most importantly, are affordable. Unfortunately, these lanterns are not easily accessible to the women and girls who need them most. There is no marketing channel that reaches them to even inform them of the existence of these lanterns that could replace the smoky, expensive tadoobas. Even if they knew about the lanterns and wanted to buy one, the sole distributor is in the city, a full day’s bus ride from some of the remote villages. Even if a woman were to travel there, she would have to know where to find the electronics distributor that sells the lanterns, in his unmarked shop, up the stairs in a gated compound, past the guard with the stern expression. She would then have to ask for the lantern, as it is not on display among the solar panels and inverters that generate more substantial income for the store owner. She would have to wait patiently while the store owner conducts business with several men who have come into the store to purchase batteries.

A persistent and pervasive technology gender-gap excludes women from participating in learning about and adapting technology based solutions such as solar energy. The technology development has not extended to the “last mile” by creating an effective marketing and distribution system that addresses the women’s needs. Without deliberate investment in women centered distribution systems that make the technology available to the women at their doorstep, with supportive education and awareness programs, the technology will continue to be underutilized and women and girls will be left, literally and figuratively, in the dark.

Actions: Describe the steps that you are taking to make your innovation a success. Include a description of the business model. What might prevent that success?

Develop Strong Partnerships - Our partnership with the Mother’s Union of Uganda ensures that Solar Sister can build on the long-standing success of the Mother’s Union to improve the lives of village women by supporting local women’s groups. Solar Sister benefits from the Mother’s Union’s vast network and established relationships. Based on the positive feedback from our pilot project and interest from other local partners, Solar Sister is building relationships with on-the-ground partners including: Tostan in Senegal, Kachile in Cote d'Ivoire, the Episcopal Diocese of Ezo, Sudan, among others. These partnerships give Solar Sister the opportunity to leverage our program through the strength of the partners' local relationships.

Listen to the Women - With support from the Mother’s Union leaders, Solar Sister provides community programs to create awareness about the benefits of solar technology and begin a dialogue that allows the women to voice their questions and describe their needs.

Demonstration Project - Based on the feedback from the women, Solar Sister invests in a community solar project to provide a concrete example of the benefits of the solar technology. The community project can be solar lighting in a school, a clinic, a community center, a woman’s enterprise center, whatever the women determine to be the most beneficial project in their community. The solar project is chosen by the women and implemented with their support to provide benefits to the entire community.

Solar Sister Associates Program – Working with the women’s group, Solar Sister will accept applications from women to become Solar Sister Associates. We will provide Associates with targeted education and training and with patient capital to seed their Solar Sister micro-enterprise. The women will then be empowered to sell individual solar lanterns to their network of family, friends and neighbors in a direct-sales program similar to “Avon Ladies”.

Solar Sister University Chapters: We are establishing Solar Sister Chapters at several universities in Uganda. The young women at university will become Solar Sister Associates, selling lanterns to generate income to support their education costs. Also, many of these young women come from rural areas, and can act as 'early adapters' and carry the technology back to their home communities.

Results: Describe the expected results of these actions over the next three years. Please address each year separately, if possible

Year 1 - Pilot project: Work with women in three villages to bring solar light to their community in projects they have chosen. Educate, train and employ 10 Solar Sister Associates in each village. Replicate the pilot project in 4 other communities.
Year 2 - Replicate the pilot project to 15 communities.
Year 3 - Replicate the pilot project to 30 communities.

One optimistic note: based on the success of our pilot project, and the tremendously positive reaction we have received from potential partners such as Tostan in Senegal, Kachile in Cote d'Ivoire and the Episcopal Diocese of Ezo, Sudan, I expect these numbers to increase significantly as we work with these well established partners.
After 3 years, Solar Sister Associates program will be active in 50 communities:
- providing solar light for 50 community projects such as schools, clinics or community centers
- employing 500 women as Solar Sister Associates
- reaching 25,000 homes with solar light (each Associate selling approx. 50 lanterns), benefiting whole families with clean solar light
- provide improved light for over 200,000 people, resulting in improved eduction, enhanced health and safety and economic opportunity, both directly through the Solar Sister Associate program and as a result of the ability to engage in income producing activities in the evenings.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your innovation seek to have an impact on public policy?


If your innovation seeks to impact public policy, how?

Approximately 150 words left (1200 characters).

What stage is your Social Enterprise in?

Operating for less than a year

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your Social Enterprise

We have formed partnerships with women's groups that have existing relationships with women in the rural communities. Our initial women's partner is the Mother's Union of Uganda, which has been serving women in Uganda for over 100 years improving lives of communities by empowering women. We have also formed a partnership with the local solar distributor to ensure quality product and continued maintenance and service.

As we expand, we will continue to seek partnerships with organizations that have established strong community presence. Already we have been approached by two organizations that would like to partner with Solar Sister to bring light to their communities.

We have developed relationships with the manufacturers of the solar lanterns, including both D.light Designs (makers of the Kiran, Solata and Nova lanterns), SunNight Solar (maker of Bogo lanterns), PiSAT Solar (maker of the K-Light lantern) and Barefoot Power (maker of the Firefly lantern). Solar Sister's role as the last mile distributor supports these companies by increasing their market penetration and increasing sales. Because Solar Sister operates as a market based sales network, we support the development of the solar market. It is important to us that we are not competing with these companies, but working with them.

In addition to these partnerships, Solar Sister will need to develop funding partnerships to support the capacity building required to meet the program growth that is anticipated based on very favorable feedback.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

The core of the Solar Sister project is a commercially sustainable distribution system for solar lanterns. Solar Sister Associates will operate as individual businesswomen in a direct-sales program. The lanterns will be sold for full retail amounts, with the Associate earning a commission. Solar Sister will provide support for seed capital and cash flow in partnership with local micro-finance institutions. Solar Sister will also provide the community solar installations that will be the center of education, awareness-building and training. These marketing, training and support activities will be funded through the non-profit Solar Sister organization, and will be funded through grants, institutional support and individual supporters.

Based on the very positive feedback and interest in the Solar Sister program, funding an increase in capacity to meet the potential increase in program will be one of our greatest challenges. We are actively seeking funding sources including exploring "patient capital" investment and corporate sponsorship.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

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 plantation, and eventually a school. Rebecca is a wonderful example of what can happen when you combine a little light with a woman's ingenuity.

When I deliberately ask women what would they choose to use solar technology for they give answers that are different than men's: put it in the latrines at the girl's boarding school, to improve healthy habits and for safety; put it in the kitchen instead of the bedroom, so women can see to cook; put it above the door outside, to provide light for a safe return after a long day in the fields. It became clear that the women had valuable insights and valued the solar technology, but needed a system that gave them room to participate fully.

As I began to become more involved in engaging women in the projects of bringing solar light to their communities it became clear that the advances in micro-solar solutions had the potential to revolutionize these women's lives - but the technology was not well marketed or distributed to the rural women who would benefit the most from it. I decided to build on the women's ingenuity and the strength of their relationships to create a network that would bring the technology right to the women's doorstep. The strength of Solar Sister's distribution system is the strength of sisterhood.

Tell us about the person—the social innovator—behind this idea.

My career started at the other end of the world from the women in rural Africa. I worked on Wall Street, financing billion dollar power plants to provide energy for economic growth. In many cases, the projects provided benefits for bankers, lawyers, engineers, everyone except the very people who needed it most, the rural poor. Often, there would be shanty towns in the very shadow of the power plants where people burned kerosene for light. The experience left me acutely aware of the need for solutions to be bottom up instead of top down. When I left banking, I brought my expertise to the task of finding an environmentally sound solution to the problem of energy poverty. For 5 years I have worked with a group that brings solar to Africa. Through this work, and the work with an
organization that empowers Afghan women through employment, I have been able to understand the importance of engaging women in any lasting change. Advances in solar technology have created a tremendous opportunity to eliminate rural energy poverty. But the solution must address the needs of the women who are the key to the successful adoption of any lasting solution.

I am a dreamer and a schemer. My passion is to analyze, to puzzle, to build and to create. My gift is to bring entrepreneurial energy to build relationships and businesses. On Wall Street, there is no "yesterday", and I woke up each morning with the challenge of making success happen. I built lasting relationships with customers and created new businesses in new markets.

In the space that opened up when I left banking to raise my family, I have been able to follow my passions: empowering women and protecting the environment. I have experience leading non-profit organizations, bringing my financial expertise and a results oriented approach to their success.

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