Solar Sister 2014
Solar Sister Hawa leading a training session.

Journeys of Light: When Women Power Meets Green Power

Neha Misra, EPA
7/3/14

“I am talking of a place…a fertile place, full of rice and wheat fields and ponds in the middle of those fields choked with lotuses and water lilies, and water buffaloes wading through the ponds and chewing on the lotuses and lilies. Those who live in this place call it the Darkness. Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.”

— The White Tiger By Aravind Adiga

Sundarbans literally means “beautiful forest” in Bengali.

I grew up in an India of Light, in the heart of urban Delhi with many privileges of a booming middle class brought by liberalization of the Indian economy in the early nineties. In 2005, for the first time, I got to see the India of Darkness up-close. I was working on a project for the Global Network on Sustainable Development in the Sundarbans region of India, one of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems on Earth, known for the world’s largest mangrove forests. While rich in biodiversity, Sundarbans is also one of the most densely populated and poorest parts of our world, and highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

During my field research, I learned that having something seemingly as simple as a solar light bulb could mean so much to the people of Sundarbans. One story particularly made a deep impact. I learned how women who had solar light could, for the first time in their lives, go to sleep peacefully without worrying about a snake biting them in their mud homes in the thick of night. The presence of solar lights reduces the risk of this hazard. This connection between light and a peaceful sleep (and life itself!) was new to me. The contrast between the lights of Delhi, as I knew it (despite its perennial power cuts), and darkness of Sundarbans could not have been more profound.

A typical kerosene lamp in the developing world

Fast forward to late 2009. I was living and working in the midst of the bright lights of America. On the heels of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, I was distraught with the lack of significant progress addressing climate equity and its relation to extreme energy poverty. There are 1.6 billion people in the world without a single light bulb. Four out of five people lacking access to electricity live in rural areas. 70% are women and girls who spend up to 40% of their family income on inefficient and dangerous fuels like kerosene. And according to IFC report, fuel based lighting is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars annually. Every day, women and children inhale smoke equivalent to two packs of cigarettes due to indoor air pollution. How can we create a bright future if women and girls around the world continue to live a life of darkness, and not one of possibilities?

Solar Sister Hawa leading a training session. (Photo: Solar Sister 2014)

My thoughts kept going back to Sundarbans. I wanted to be a part of a bottom-up solution. So I became a part of Solar Sister, a start-up social enterprise marrying “woman power” with “green power,” and doing so through market-based and locally driven innovation. Solar Sister combines the breakthrough potential of clean energy technology (like portable solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and, more recently, clean cookstoves) with a women-centric direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in Africa.

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