Why Gender Is Key to African Off-Grid Solar Energy Sales

Gender equality could have a significant impact on rural electrification moves in sub-Saharan Africa, new data suggests.

Fenix International, which sells off-grid solar kits in Uganda and Zambia, has uncovered a gender difference: Although only 20 percent of its kits are purchased by women, they bring in more new clients than men.

In 2016, Fenix got about 60 percent of its sales through personal referrals, according to Erin Boehmer, a data scientist at Fenix. A third of these sales came via customers who had provided more than one referral, with eight out of 10 referrers being men.

Digging deeper into the data, though, it is clear the women are better ambassadors for rural electrification. On average, women can be expected to refer four new customers, compared to three for men. Fenix customers get a small commission for each referral.

Anecdotal evidence suggests women might have even greater influence in solar kit purchase decisions than the referral figures indicate. For example, once Fenix contracts are signed it is usually women who pay the bills, Boehmer said.

While the men like to be seen as the main decision-makers in many sub-Saharan African off-grid families, it is actually the women who are pulling the strings and spreading the word about the benefits of solar.

A report published a year ago by the African Development Bank Group said: “In rural and peri-urban areas, women and girls are mainly responsible for procuring and using cooking fuels; they are disproportionately affected by the negative effects of limited access to energy.”

The bank said it had “traditionally concentrated on large‑scale, capital‑intensive technology projects designed to provide energy for growth in the formal sectors of the economy, including cash crops and mechanized production, which tend to be the domain of men.”

Not only do women represent the biggest source of demand for rural electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, they also might be slightly better than men at keeping up payments to solar kit providers, based on Fenix’s data.

Although it is hard to generalize, said Boehmer: “As a general trend, what we see is that women can tend to be a bit more reliable, but they can also be more dramatically unreliable. If they have a shock, it might hit them harder.”

Underpinning Fenix’s experience is an implication that gender-sensitive companies might do better in the rural electrification market than those that are more male-oriented.

Boehmer noted that many cleantech and IT firms operating in Africa appear to have greater gender equality than their counterparts in the U.S.

It is unclear why this is the case, although “the green industry draws people who are idealists,” said Boehmer, including women who are motivated by making a social contribution as much as building a business.

At Fenix, for example, the entire data science team is made up of women. The company, which was bought by the French utility giant Engie in October, has a woman CEO and “has been very powered by women thus far,” Boehmer said.

Other rural electrification players might want to take note, although the need for a woman’s touch is not the only thing that sets this market apart from other energy sectors worldwide.

Take customer relations. Most customers in developed countries dread a call to a service provider. Fenix reports that 60 percent of its customers have contacted the company, often just to praise the service.